Healthy Living

Seasonal Affective Disorder: What It Is and How to Treat It

Jan 21 2022

During the dark days of winter, many people develop signs of depression. This specific type of depression is known as seasonal affective disorder.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

These symptoms can appear gradually or suddenly and may be mild or severe. They include:

  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Oversleeping or other changes in sleeping habits
  • Appetite changes, particularly craving foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness

Up to 80 percent of people with seasonal affective disorder are women, and most of them are in their mid-20s to mid-30s. People who work long hours inside buildings with few windows may also be more prone to developing this disorder.

These symptoms are significant and can affect an individual’s family, social and work life. For this reason, it is important to not brush them off as simply “winter blues”.

How to treat seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder symptoms usually ease or disappear when spring arrives. However, there is no need to wait a few long months to start feeling better.

There are many medical treatments that can help alleviate the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

  • Light therapy: Research indicates light therapy can help improve seasonal affective disorder’s symptoms. Also known as phototherapy, light therapy can elevate mood and help the body’s circadian rhythm adjust. People who use light therapy typically sit about two feet away from a lightbox right after they wake up. In most cases, 30 minutes is the right amount of time. Always talk to your doctor before beginning light therapy. Light boxes aren’t regulated by the FDA, so your physician may be able to assist you in purchasing the correct one.
  • Medication: Because seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression, antidepressant medications can help regulate the chemical imbalance it creates. Many people can stop taking their medication when springtime comes, too. However, always make sure to talk to your doctor before stopping or starting any medications.
  • Psychotherapy: Studies have also shown that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective intervention for seasonal affective disorder. CBT interventions decrease reoccurrence rates by helping rid negative thoughts and behavioral patterns.

In addition to these medical treatments, lifestyle changes can also help manage symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

  • Daily walks: Even if it’s not 70 degrees, it’s still a good idea to make the most of the sunlight when it is available. People with seasonal affective disorder can benefit from going outside for 20 to 30 minutes each morning. The exercise will help boost your mood, too.
  • Consistent sleep: Many people with seasonal affective disorder report that they oversleep. On the flip side, some also struggle with insomnia. Regardless of your symptoms, it is good idea to develop strong, consistent sleep habits during the winter months.
  • Staying busy: Packing your schedule with things to do keeps your mind and body active. However, winter tends to challenge people as there are fewer activities going on. Starting a new hobby during this time of the year can help you stay busy and have something to look forward to each week.
  • A balanced diet: Individuals with seasonal affective disorder often crave carbohydrates. Unfortunately, carbs can increase fatigue. Saying no to those cravings and maintaining a well-balanced diet can help your energy levels. Take advantage of seasonal healthy favorites like squash and grapefruit.

If your seasonal affective disorder symptoms are more severe and are having a major impact on your daily life, talk to your primary care provider

And if you have suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately by calling the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or going to the nearest emergency room. 

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