Considering how we are going to celebrate the upcoming holidays, this season is not always the easiest. As a nation, we’ve spent the vast majority of the year under social distancing and quarantine directives. As important as these measures are in supporting our public health, there is another recurring and underlying condition that also deserves some spotlight. I’m talking about winter-onset Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly known as winter depression or the “winter blues”. Given the current public health and winter climates that we’ve found ourselves in, I think it’s so important that we discuss how we can make plans to take care of our mental health for the holiday season and beyond. That’s why I’m eager to share my top five tips for overcoming Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is SAD? (Seasonal Affective Disorder )
SAD is a mental health condition that is triggered by the changing of the seasons. Typically SAD is experienced in the late fall or early winter periods and usually ends in the spring and summer months when it starts to get sunnier. This condition is fairly common, and is estimated to affect 10 millions Americans annually.
There are several signs and symptoms that are associated with winter-onset SAD. These include, but are not limited to: lack of sleep, significant weight loss or gains, poor concentration, low energy, feeling depressed for large portions of the day, loss of motivation, no longer taking interests in things that you used to enjoy.
What Causes SAD?
When our light exposure diminishes, our body’s circadian rhythm, often referred to as our “biological clock”, is disrupted. This can lead to feelings of depression and mood swings. Sunlight also influences our body’s production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects our moods. With less of this brain chemical available, depression may be triggered. Moreover, during the winter season, our melatonin levels are at an unbalanced level. Melatonin is a naturally occurring chemical that is produced in the pineal gland. Our pineal gland is triggered to produce melatonin when there is darkness, and to stop production when there is light. Consequently, just like our circadian rhythm and serotonin levels, melatonin has a direct impact on our sleep patterns and mood.
What Can I Do?
Over the years I have treated numerous patients who have been affected by SAD. Here is my list of top recommendations that have proven to be helpful.
Light therapy is administered through the use of SAD lamps, or light boxes. These illuminating devices contain fluorescent bulbs that replicate the intensity of light that comes from the sun. No worries, as they are UV filtered so your skin and eyes are protected from light-related damage.
When buying a SAD lamp, it’s important that you purchase one that is not only effective but safe. The standard light emission for effective treatment is 10,000 lux and is typically the size of a desktop monitor. Experts recommend sitting about twelve inches from your light box, for a duration of 30 minutes upon waking up. This can be done daily alongside other morning activities such as reading a magazine or eating breakfast. When using your light box, it’s important that it is facing towards your face so that the photosensors in your retina cells can send the right signals to your brain.
Create A Routine
It is important to establish routines that will help you normalize your daily routine. By doing this, you are able to keep your mood and motivation consistent throughout this period. You can add activities such as reading, meditation, cooking, yoga, and daily exercise to your routine. If you’re not comfortable with public gyms or exercising outdoors, you can order at-home exercise equipment, like foldable treadmills, resistance bands, and free weights.
Another thing to keep in mind is that social distancing does not necessarily mean social isolation. I recommend regularly scheduling time to participate in virtual hangouts and meetings with friends, family, and clubs that align with your personal interests.
Diet and Supplements
Another method to improve how your body responds to your external environment is to improve what you put inside of it. You can make improvements to your diet by consuming balanced meals and foods that are rich in protein, amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, flax seed, salmon). If you’re unable to get the daily recommended sun exposure due to shortened daylight or inclement weather, Vitamin D supplements are a great way to support your body’s natural mood regulators.
Although I strongly believe in the power to heal the body with nutrition and holistic means, sometimes we require more. And that’s ok. We have to be able to let our armor down and know when to ask for help when needed. In some cases, you may need to consider starting a therapeutic treatment plan under the care of a licensed professional, which leads me to my last tip, seeking help from a professional. If you are in Texas and looking for a Psychiatric Provider, please feel free to reach out and see me virtually HERE.
Seek Professional Help
This tip is listed last, not because it was the least useful, but because I wanted to emphasize the importance of seeking help from a licensed mental health professional. There is strength in talking to someone about your experience and sharing in the knowledge that a professional can provide to help find the best option(s) that work for you.
If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, please seek help immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.