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SAD No More: How to Beat Winter-Weather Blues

For many Michiganders, winter is a season filled with activities. Bitterly cold mornings? Grab your skates! Gray, overcast skies? There's a snow day in the future. A gloom that settles in like an unwelcome houseguest? OK, maybe we do sometimes feel a bit down after a stretch of cold, cloudy days.

But for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD – winter’s arrival is anything but wonderful. The dreary weather clouds their moods, and resets their energy levels as low as the wind chill. If that description makes SAD sound like a serious mental health issue, that’s because it is.

If you suffer from SAD, know treatment can make a difference.

“Seasonal affective disorder is a variant of major depressive disorder,” says Dr. Philip Lanzisera, a clinical psychologist, who works at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. “It has the hallmarks of major depression, like major disturbances in mood or pleasure, energy [level], sleep and appetite.” What makes SAD different from typical depression is that it occurs predominantly during the fall and winter, when there’s less sunlight.

Living in a northern state, like Michigan, makes you more likely to experience SAD than your cousins in, say, Florida or Texas, who get a steadier stream of sunlight in the winter. You’re also more likely to have SAD if you’re a woman; are between the ages of 15 and 55; and if you or your family have a history of depression, bipolar disorder or SAD.

Sometimes called “winter depression,” people typically notice symptoms starting in late fall or winter, only to see their condition improve with the arrival of longer, sunnier days, says Buff Donovan, a licensed social worker and HAP’s director of Coordinated Behavioral Health Management. People with SAD tend to sleep and eat more than usual.

SAD affects people to different degrees. With mild SAD, you may have to push yourself but you’re able to do what you normally do. With moderate SAD, you have some difficulties accomplishing day-to-day activities. With more severe cases of SAD, you’re unable to do what you normally would and lose interest even in your favorite things. All you may want to do is eat, sleep and be left alone.

How to Beat SAD

Resist the urge to isolate yourself and hit the snooze button over and over again, says Donovan. Keeping a regular schedule, eating healthy and getting the right amount of sleep can help alleviate mild cases of SAD. Exercise – even a brisk walk – can help lift your mood and boost your energy. If these lifestyle changes don’t calm your symptoms, talk to your doctor about other treatments, like light therapy, counseling and medication.

Light therapy is a go-to treatment for SAD. It’s effective and relatively simple – you use a “light therapy box” to replace the sunshine you’re missing. (See sidebar, above.) Your doctor may also suggest antidepressant medication to ease your symptoms. One-on-one counseling with a therapist can help in more severe cases.

If you notice a worrisome change in your outlook and behavior as winter looms, keep a “mood diary” to track your emotions. If serious symptoms last more than two weeks, talk to your doctor. He or she can suggest a treatment plan to help you embrace, not dread, winter.

“Except for winter sports enthusiasts, nobody likes winter terribly much,” admits Dr. Lanzisera. “The sky is gray. It’s cold outside. It’s icy. It’s miserable. But SAD is not just ‘I don’t like winter.’ It’s a true disorder that impairs function.” Don’t try to tough it out, he adds. “Stay active, stay engaged, and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of withdrawal,” he says. If you or someone you love suffers from SAD, treatment can help. And keep in mind that winter, like any season, does end. The arrival of springtime blossoms will also likely bring a brighter outlook.

Other symptoms of SAD include:

  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Lack of energy
  • Feeling “blue”
  • Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • Craving carbohydrates such as bread and pasta
  • Difficulty concentrating

Light therapy boxes can bring sunshine inside

You know how a warm, sunny day brightens your mood? When you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, an occasional bright day isn’t enough to offset your symptoms. A light therapy box gives you your own source of sunlight – with most of the skin-damaging UV rays filtered out.

Light boxes range in cost from about $40 to more than $300. Look for one that gives full-spectrum, high-intensity light. “They can be very effective for folks with mild to moderate SAD,” says Dr. Lanzisera.

Your doctor will tell you how much time to spend in front of the box – typically 20 to 60 minutes each morning. This simple treatment may make a big difference this winter in how you feel.

To talk to a counselor about SAD or any other issue, contact our Coordinated Behavioral Health Management department at (800) 444-5755.

Categories: Get Healthy