5 Ways to Ease Seasonal Depression

 

If shorter days and shifts in weather zap your energy and make you feel blue, you’ve got classic symptoms of a seasonal mood disorder. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of seasonal depression triggered by the change in seasons that occurs primarily in winter. Why do some people get SAD? Experts aren’t certain, but some think that seasonal changes disrupt the circadian rhythm: the 24-hour clock that regulates how we function during sleeping and waking hours, causing us to feel energized and alert sometimes and drowsy at other times.

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Another theory is that the changing seasons disrupt hormones such as serotonin and melatonin, which regulate sleep, mood, and feelings of well-being. About 4 to 6 percent of U.S. residents suffer from SAD, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, and as many as 20 percent may have a mild form of it that starts when days get shorter and colder. Women and young people are more likely to experience SAD, as are those who live farther away from the equator. People with a family history or diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder may be particularly susceptible.

“It is important to treat SAD, because all forms of depression limit people’s ability to live their lives to the fullest, to enjoy their families, and to function well at work,” says Deborah Pierce, MD, MPH, clinical associate professor of family medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, New York. Here are a few SAD treatment options you might want to consider.

Try Light From a Box

Light therapy boxes give off light that mimics sunshine and can help in the recovery from seasonal affective disorder. The light from the therapy boxes is significantly brighter than that of regular light bulbs, and it’s provided in different wavelengths.

Typically, if you have SAD, you sit in front of a light box for about 30 minutes a day. This will stimulate your body’s circadian rhythms and suppress its natural release of melatonin. Most people find light therapy to be most effective if used when they first get up in the morning, according to researchers at the University of Michigan Depression Center in Ann Arbor.

A study published in 2014 in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that one week of light therapy may be as effective as two, though most people continue light therapy throughout the entire season that they’re affected.

Use Dawn Simulators

Dawn simulators can help some people with seasonal affective disorder. These devices are alarm clocks, but rather than waking you abruptly with loud music or beeping, they produce light that gradually increases in intensity, just like the sun.Different models of dawn simulators are available, but the best ones use full-spectrum light, which is closest to natural sunlight. Russian researchers found that dawn simulators were as effective as light therapy for people with mild SAD, according to a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

 

Talk With Your Doctor

Talk With Your Doctor

Because SAD is a form of depression, it’s best diagnosed by talking with a mental health professional. “There are a number of screening questions that can help determine if someone is depressed,” Dr. Pierce says. “Your doctor will be able to sort out whether you have SAD as opposed to some other form of depression.”

If you have SAD, therapy can help you work through it. About 12 years ago, Arlene Malinowski, PhD, 58, recognized she had SAD when she read about the symptoms in a magazine article.

“I would notice a drop in how I felt and perceived the world in the winter,” the Chicago resident recalls. The psychiatrist she had been seeing for depression confirmed it.

 

Consider Antidepressants

If light therapy or psychotherapy does not sufficiently boost your mood, prescription antidepressants may help you overcome seasonal depression. But avoid medications that might make you sleepy, advises the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Some people think it’s only necessary to take antidepressants during the winters when they’re feeling the blues, but they must do so every winter, the organization says.

It’s important to recognize when the symptoms of SAD start, and to see your doctor for a prescription before they escalate, says Ani Kalayjian, doctor of education and adjunct professor of psychology at Columbia University in New York City, who specializes in traumatic stress.

 

Add Aromatherapy

Add Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy may also help those with seasonal disorder. The essential oils can influence the area of the brain that’s responsible for controlling moods and the body’s internal clock that influences sleep and appetite, Dr. Kalayjian says.

You can add a few drops of essential oils to your bath at night to help you relax. Essential oils from the poplar tree in particular were found to help depressive disorders in a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Natural Medicines.

 

Get Moving

Get Moving

As it does with other forms of depression, exercise can help alleviate seasonal affective disorder, too. Outdoor exercise would be most helpful. But if you can’t exercise outside because it’s cold or snowy, choose a treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical machine close to a window at the gym.

Exercise can also help offset the weight gain that is common with seasonal affective disorder, Kalayjian says. Malinowski says she’s more vigilant about sticking with her exercise and yoga routine in the dead of winter.

 

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