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What to Do if You Suffer From Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression. Here's the key to beating the winter blues.


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If it feels like you’re barely slogging through another Jersey winter, you’re not alone. Between short days and frigid temperatures, the mid-winter doldrums are real. 

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression linked to changes in the seasons, says Stephanie Duva, PhD, chief psychologist at University Behavioral Health Care at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. “It usually happens the same time each year, starting in the fall and improving in the spring and summer. It’s related to reduced levels of sunlight.” The lack of light affects some people’s serotonin and melatonin levels, which can alter mood.

About six percent of people experience SAD, while another 10 to 20 percent have a milder form called the “winter blues,” according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).  “Typically, SAD feels like you’re hibernating,” says Jennifer Payne, MD, director of the Women’s Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD. “You sleep more, you crave starchy or sweet foods and you gain weight.”

It’s normal to have the occasional down day. But if seasonal depression impacts your ability to function and you’re missing work, skipping social events or have feelings of wanting to hurt yourself, Duva suggests you see a mental health professional immediately. Here’s how to cope if you’re feeling the effects of winter’s dark days:

See the Light 

“Using a light box is standard therapy for SAD if you’re dealing with minor symptoms,” says Payne. Look for a box that has 10,000 lux of light, and use it as soon as you wake up. Start with 15 minutes and work up to an hour. You can also buy a dawn simulator, which gradually increases light so you wake up naturally without a jarring alarm.

Eat Well

Steer clear of carbs and sweets, which can cause weight gain and make you feel even more sluggish, says Payne. Opt for lean proteins and complex carbs instead. 

Get Moving 

Exercise boosts serotonin, which is reduced in people with SAD. While one hour of daily aerobic exercise is recommended for depression, anything is better than nothing, says Payne. Walk around the block with a friend, take a class or play Wii with the kids. 

Check your Vitamin D 

Several studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency is associated with depression, says Duva. And in the gloomy Northeast, it’s tough for your body to make vitamin D in the winter. Ask your doc to check your levels and discuss supplements. 

Pack your bags

Some experts say their patients swear by a winter getaway. If you can swing it, it’s not a bad idea to trade a few dreary days for some sunshine. 

Get Help 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective for SAD. If your symptoms don’t improve, ask your doctor if therapy or medication is right for you. “When we’re depressed, we view the world through a depressive lens,” says Duva. “CBT teaches skills to evaluate negative thoughts more realistically.”

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