About the Author
Freelance writer Dawn Weinberger lives in Portland, Ore., with her&nbsp; husband, Carl, and her cat, Lucy Liu. She covers health, fashion, pets&nbsp;and green living for several local and national publications.
The winter doldrums aren't exactly rare--everyone feels low now and then, and gray skies don't really help. But for some, this down-in-the-dumps feeling is more than just a now-and-then thing. It starts as soon as the leaves begin to fall and lasts until spring flowers start to bloom (maybe longer). If this sounds familiar, you might be dealing with a condition commonly referred to (quite appropriately) as SAD, for seasonal affective disorder.
"SAD is a pattern of depression that occurs seasonally. Usually in the winter," says Jason Luoma, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Ore., who treats patients at the Portland Mood Disorders Clinic.
SAD SignsSymptoms, he says, mimic those of major clinical depression. In severe cases, thoughts of suicide are possible. Some SAD sufferers struggle with low self worth. More common, however, are symptoms such as lethargy, sleep disturbances, irritability, concentration problems, carbohydrate cravings, weight gain, and lack of interest in work, friends and leisure activities.
"I'm normally a go-getter, but when I'm in a SAD funk, I'm just not myself," says Jocelyn Murray, 42, of Stratford, Conn., who has been dealing with SAD for at least five years. "I have a hard time mustering the ability to go out of the house."
What causes SAD? According to Luoma, nobody knows for sure. However, because it tends to strike when the days are short and darkness comes on early, many believe that the lack of sunlight available in wintertime, along with circadian rhythms (a fancy term for your internal body clock), has something to do with it.
"There is a receptor on the eye that is especially receptive to the presence of light, and it is involved in regulating the sleep-wake cycle (as well as) levels of bodily alertness," Luoma explains. "For some people, when the days get too short they cross a threshold where their (circadian) rhythms really slow down and you start to see depressive-type symptoms. It's all related to the type of light that you get during the day."
Not surprisingly, the condition becomes more common as you head north. In the Pacific Northwest, about 9 percent of the population suffers from SAD. It's even more common in places like Alaska. In Florida, it's very rare, Luoma says.
SAD TreatmentBefore you pack up and move to Florida, there is help out there for SAD sufferers.
"The most established form of treatment is light therapy," Luoma explains, adding that just getting outdoors during the daylight hours does not seem to have any direct benefit.
Light therapy involves sitting for at least 30 minutes in front of a light box that has been designed specifically for this purpose. Several companies manufacture these boxes, and prices vary (some are under $200; others retail for more than $400). A quality box, Luoma says, will emit 10,000 lux of illumination (the box should specify this important detail), and it should give off a white (not blue) light.
Does it work? According to Luoma, yes. And people who suffer from SAD concur. Murray keeps a light box on her kitchen counter and says that after she uses it, her whole frame of mind changes.
"It's amazing how it really erases or alleviates the dull feeling I get," she says.
A prescription is not needed to purchase a light box, so technically you don't need to speak to a doctor before trying out the remedy. However, sometimes it's not SAD that is causing your symptoms; you could be suffering from another, non-seasonal form of depression, so go see your doctor before you consider investing in a light box.
"[We] start by talking to the person about when (their symptoms) started," Luoma says. "This gives us a sense of whether it is seasonal or just regular depression."
If the depression is more than seasonal, your doctor might prescribe some other form of treatment (such as medication or counseling). Otherwise, expect to find relief with the light box.
"If you are having this pattern where (the blues) are consistent with winter and you feel better during the time when the days are long, the (prospect of) clinical depression is not really a concern," Luoma says.
Counseling also may help when it comes to treating SAD. Trained therapists can give you cognitive tools to handle the symptoms ways to prevent future depressive episodes. A combination of therapies may also be right for you, so talk to your doctor to learn more.