Dr. Deb’s Mental Health Vitamin: Seasonal affective disorder
By Dr. Deb Wade
GCU Vice President, Counseling and Psychological Services
Despite the lingering hot temperatures, the calendar tells us that fall has arrived!
A great number of folks are glad as they anticipate the beauty of the leaves changing on the trees and the accompanying foliage, cooler temperatures, sweater weather and candy corn.
But for others, this is a dreaded time of year as the calendar ushers in a zapping of the energy and a predictable moodiness and funk, all of which are unwelcome symptoms that seem to occur regularly with the changing of seasons.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is related to changes in the seasons, most often starting in the fall and continuing into the winter months. Symptoms may start out as mild and become more severe as the season progresses.
For those suffering from SAD, the fall and winter seasons are difficult. It seems to fly in the face of the rest of the population, which celebrates the arrival of fall and basks in the display of color that is bursting forth on our trees and accompanying foliage.
Often, I’ve heard from those that suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder that they feel a need to justify their increased anxiety, sadness and stress. They experience a lack of enjoyment in regular activities, tend to isolate from others and have mood swings that are much more than just the “winter blues.”
The symptoms are very real! Cooler weather, shorter days, more darkness … all of these very normal parts of the changing of the seasons can really debilitate those who suffer from SAD.
So … what can you do? How can you kick SAD to the curb? Here are some tips:
- First, acknowledge that it is OK! You are not strange or weird because you have difficulty with this time of year. It is a very real diagnosis, can be quite debilitating and can have a profound impact on your wellness!
- Next, know that there are some lifestyle changes that can help you cope with SAD!
- Exercise regularly! When you exercise vigorously, endorphins are released into your body, bringing forth positive feelings and increased energy. A side bonus is that you will be increasing your strength, cutting down on body fat and just feeling much better in your whole body!
- Make social plans and put them on the calendar! During the darker months, it can be very tempting to plop yourself down on the most comfortable piece of furniture, cover up with your favorite blanket and watch endless hours of TV. Doing this will only worsen the impact of SAD. Instead, get out of the house, meet a friend or co-worker for coffee, plan an outing with your family … it can be hard to get started, but once you do, you will be glad you did!
- Soak up as much sun as is possible! The sun may not be out for very long, but when it is, make a point of being outside and purposely feeling the rays on your face! Our bodies actually crave sunlight, so even if it is chilly, bundle up and go outside!
- Bring the light into your home! One of the easiest ways to counter the effects of winter depression is to pull back the curtains or shades and let the sun inside. If you live in an area where the sun seems to be hiding, a common practice is to use “light therapy.” Turn on the bright lights inside your home — they will mimic the sunlight in their effect on your mood — and enjoy the benefits!
- Avoid high carbs that come from “comfort food!” These foods tend to feel heavy in the stomach, so the initial “comfort” actually can further debilitate the energy. Carbs (breads, pies, cookies, sweets) can tend to elevate your mood quickly with a spike … but inevitably, the drop (in mood, energy, negative feelings) will not be worth the momentary comfort that carbs bring. Rather, fruit, veggies, protein and fiber will be longer-term “fixes” that will make the sense of wellness last!
- Finally, consider seeing a therapist! When the depression seems to be getting worse, engaging in therapy with a trusted counselor can work wonders! Do yourself a favor – saddle up with a caring, encouraging counselor who will also challenge you out of the doldrums and back into life again.
Seasonal Affective Disorder does not need to flatten you on the couch! Rather, put on your boxing gloves and, with determination and grit, choose to defeat the harshness of the winter months so that YOU are back in the driver’s seat of your life! You will feel victorious in knowing that you did not succumb to the heaviness of the winter blues!