Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder suffered by half a million people every winter in the United States. It typically flares up between September and April, peaking in December, January, and February. Symptoms include: extreme mood changes, anxiety, and inability to deal with stress, depression, loss of self-esteem, lethargy, overeating and social withdrawal.
Diagnosis is typically made after three consecutive winters with these symptoms, followed by total remission in the spring and summer months. A milder version of the disorder is known as the “Winter Blues.” If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from either of these conditions, here are six tips to get you through the winter months:
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1. Consult a doctor. SAD symptoms can actually be confused with other medical conditions such as hypothyroidism and certain viral infections. Always consult a medical professional for a proper diagnosis to ensure the correct and best treatment for yourself. If you suspect a loved one is experiencing SAD symptoms, offer to accompany them to the doctor or help make the appointment. When you’re feeling down, taking that first step toward action can be the most difficult. Knowing someone is in your corner and willing to help makes a big difference.
2. With the support of your medical professional, consider light therapy. Light therapy mimics outdoor light and aims to cause a biochemical change in your brain to improve mood. Patients sit with eyes open in front of a light box containing fluorescent bulbs, which emit a different kind and intensity of light than those commonly found in households. Sufferers of SAD produce an excess of melatonin during the low-light months of fall and winter, which can cause debilitating depression symptoms. Exposure to bright light can suppress this over-production and help regulate one’s internal clock, reducing negative symptoms. Daily treatment of light therapy has shown improvement in 80% of participants. Bear in mind that there are mild symptoms of light therapy including: eyestrain, fatigue, irritability, nausea, headache, and insomnia. Work with your doctor to reduce these issues by moving farther from the light box, changing the time of day you employ light therapy, and reducing treatment time.
3. Eat healthy and get plenty of exercise. This is good advice year-round, but especially during the colder months when it’s easy to get comfortable cozying up inside with comfort food. Fight the urge to load up on carbs. They may give you an initial burst of energy but they can leave you feeling tired. Instead, stick to healthy options like veggies, fruits, and lean meats. Couple healthy eating with regular aerobic exercise to elevate your heart rate, even if it’s just a brisk walk around the block. When your body feels good, your mind often follows!
4. Stay social and involved as the winter months approach. Plan enjoyable social activities throughout the winter season. Brave the cold and go on group outings with friends to see movies, plays, and concerts, or throw a winter-themed costume party at your place. Make it a point to get some social interaction all winter — not just on the holidays! And if you notice a loved one is isolating themselves, don’t ignore them. Offer to make them a healthy dinner one evening or suggest a walk in a local park. People with SAD may need help from others when it comes to staying social.
5. Consider a dawn simulator alarm clock. Though it hasn’t been studied with SAD as much as light therapy, waking up with a dawn simulator may also ease your symptoms. This kind of device gradually increases the amount of light in your bedroom in the morning to imitate the rising sun and wake you up in a more natural way. It can help reset your circadian rhythm and improve your mood, and is a safer option for those suffering from both SAD and bipolar disorder.
6. Nip seasonal affective disorder in the bud. If you’ve been officially diagnosed, prepare yourself before it hits. Begin using a light box at the beginning of the fall, even if you aren’t yet feeling any symptoms. Do your best to spend time outdoors every day, regardless of the season. Even if it’s cloudy, the effects of sunlight are still available and beneficial. Finally, consider speaking to a mental health professional specializing in cognitive therapy, as this can be another effective treatment for SAD.
Always consult a medical professional before beginning treatment for seasonal affective disorder. With the right diet and exercise, social interaction and light therapy, you can make your SAD a thing of the past.
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