It's that time of year in the Midwest. The days are getting shorter and the nights are getting cooler. The leaves have started changing. It's time to brace for short days. Going to work and coming home in the dark. Gray skies, snow storms, and ice. I'll admit it; I dislike winter in the best of times. I especially dislike it when I slow down and feel the urge to curl up and hibernate until spring. Otherwise known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)-- or “seasonal depression” as many people call it, is a misunderstood depressive disorder that affects around 5% of adults in the United States. (My personal guess is that it affects many more people). SAD affects about 3 million people annually. The farther north you live, the more likely you are to develop SAD. Women are more at risk than men (Although, I bet that's more about women being more likely to talk about it and seek help!) You're also more at risk if you have a relative who struggles with SAD.
People may often equate SAD with “winter blues”, however, it is much more. SAD often starts slow and builds as winter drags on. Someone who has seasonal affective disorder may start noticing their energy levels decreasing and feel sad more often than they used to when fall starts. They may crave carb-heavy foods, and lose interest in doing things they used to enjoy (such as painting or other hobbies). A common symptom I see in my clients is an increase in irritability and feelings of being overwhelmed. The person may find themselves isolated from friends and family and may struggle to get out of bed in the morning. These classic symptoms of depression become characteristic of seasonal affective disorder when they are consistently sparked by the onset of the fall/winter months.
So, how do you deal with SAD? I'm glad you asked! The most important thing is to get a handle on it as soon as possible. The nasty thing about depression is that it saps your will to take action and fight it. Don't wait until you find yourself curled up in the fetal position, unable to move, to start dealing with it. Start now, as soon as you feel yourself slowing down. The faster you catch it, the easier it will be. (Easier-not easy.)
The first thing I recommend for all of my clients who struggle with any type of depression is to have their Vitamin D levels checked. Roughly 42% of Americans are Vitamin D deficient and this plays a huge role in depression. Of course, a good diet and regular cardio are also key ways to combat depression.
Exercise is another invaluable tool against depression. Exercise will decrease cortisol (the stress hormone). It will increase the production of dopamine and serotonin. Cardio will help you sleep better and give you more energy. It will also help combat the weight gain that almost everyone encounters during winter. Cardio exercise, hitting your target heart weight for 20 minutes, 3 times a week is the single best thing you can do for stress, anxiety, and depression. I get how few people follow through with this (including me), so no judgment here if you don't try this option.
One of the most common treatments for SAD is light therapy. Typically, in the morning you are exposed to a seasonal affective disorder lamp. Typically, doctors recommend using a 10,00 lux lamp (with UV blockage) for at least 20 minutes in the mornings. Treatment is usually continued daily throughout the winter, as it is common for SAD symptoms to return once stopping light therapy. In addition, antidepressants and/or talk therapy have been shown to help decrease seasonal depression symptoms.
Another option for SAD is medication. There's no shame in taking medication for depression. If you feel this is the option for you, talk to your doctor. I won't spend a lot of time talking about antidepressants because I'm a therapist, not a doctor. I do believe it's a viable option for those that are open to it.
Therapy can help. Cognitive behavior therapy is effective for treating depression. It helps to identify the negative thoughts that accompany depression and take positive actions to keep your mood stable. Sometimes (often) you need someone detached to help you identify the negative thoughts and challenge them. A therapist can also help you stay accountable for following through on goals. If you want help with treating your depression, schedule a free consultation.
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