Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Are you or a family member normally happy most of the time until the days grow shorter during late autumn and winter? When you can’t be in the sun or even be exposed to direct sunlight in your home or workplace, do you notice yourself becoming more and more depressed? Do you start to feel better in the spring? Has this seasonal change of mood occurred for two years or more? If so, you might suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
It can be difficult to diagnose SAD because the symptoms are usually similar to other forms of depression, except that they occur at a certain time of the year. They can include:
- Hopelessness, unhappiness and irritability
- Increased appetite with weight gain (weight loss is more common with other forms of depression)
- Increased sleep (too little sleep is more common with other forms of depression)
- Less energy and ability to concentrate, sluggish movements
- Loss of interest in work or other activities and social withdrawal
As with other types of depression, a physician may prescribe antidepressant medicines and talk therapy.
Light therapy is also effective for some people. Treatment usually is started in the fall or early winter, before the symptoms of SAD begin. Light therapy may work by resetting your “biological clock” (circadian rhythms), which controls sleeping and waking. There are two types of light therapy:
- bright light treatment: you sit in front of a “light box” for a certain amount of time (usually in the morning),
- dawn simulation: while you sleep, a low-intensity light is timed to go on at a certain time in the morning before you wake up, and it gradually gets brighter.
Light therapy should be used following a health care provider’s instructions. Light boxes are available commercially and use fluorescent lights that are brighter than indoor lights but not as bright as sunlight. Ultraviolet light, full-spectrum light, tanning lamps, and heat lamps should not be used. It may take as little as 3 to 5 days or up to 3 to 4 weeks before patients respond to light therapy. Light therapy needs to be continued for the entire season when the person is depressed. People who discontinue treatment usually lapse back into depression.
People who take medicines that make them more sensitive to light, such as certain psoriasis drugs, antibiotics, or antipsychotics, should not use light therapy. A checkup with your eye doctor is recommended before starting treatment.
Managing SAD depression on your own
Things you can do to help manage your symptoms on your own include:
- Try to get enough sleep.A healthy, balanced diet is helpful for any type of depression and may help relieve some of the symptoms of SAD.
- Take medicines as directed. Ask your health care provider how to manage possible side effects.
- Get regular exercise, especially first thing in the morning. Moderate exercise, such as walking, riding a stationary bike, swimming or other activities recommended by your doctor may help.
- Learn to watch for early signs that your depression is getting worse. Have a plan for what to do if it does get worse.
- Include activities that make you happy in your day.
- Do not use alcohol and illegal drugs. These can make depression worse. They can also affect your judgment about suicide. Get medical help right away if you have thoughts of hurting yourself or anyone else.
With no treatment, symptoms usually get better on their own with the change of seasons, but often symptoms will improve more quickly with treatment.
How to help a person with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Sometimes family, friends and even professional caregivers are not sure how to help someone who is experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Here are some suggestions:
- Spend time with your loved one, even though the person may be withdrawn or quiet.
- Offer to help with daily tasks that temporarily may be too difficult to do alone, but do not enable the person to remain depressed by taking over all daily responsibilities.
- Take a walk or do some other type of exercise activity together. Getting out in the morning sunlight for a walk may be helpful.
- Help the person to stick with the doctor’s prescribed treatment plan.
Much of the information in this blog came from the sources below. Click on the links to learn more about SAD and its treatment.