Let’s call the REALTOR® “Joan,” since she’d rather not use her real name. She says that after the activity and energy of the December holidays, she always felt like she’d hit the bottom of a roller coaster in January and February. At home she felt lazy, slept late, and skipped her daily mile-long walk in her neighborhood. No surprise that she added some extra pounds and that was additionally discouraging.
Heading out to work was a chore because she didn’t want to have to be sociable. “I called it my ‘winter blahs and I think it affected my relationship with clients,” she says. “And not in a good way.”
After several years of watching Joan’s mid-winter gloom, another agent in the office sat her down over a cup of coffee. “Joan,” he said, “have you ever heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder?” He explained the acronym is—very appropriately—SAD and it’s a very real problem for many people. He also suggested she visit her healthcare provider.
Her doctor took her complaint seriously. She told Joan that SAD is a true form of depression and two-to-three times as many women as men are affected, but that many people find relief with various changes in the daily routine. If these lifestyle tweaks didn’t help, she added, some people benefit from a short-term regimen of antidepressants. That visit with the doctor led to a positive life change for Joan who now overcomes SAD every year.
Tweaks to Ward off SAD
Before turning to medications, persons with SAD can go into action with a variety of strategies. Start at home. One of the first actions is to increase exposure to sunlight. So trim back bushes that block windows and open curtains and blinds. Move your desk or favorite chair next to a sunny window. If you have dark rooms, consider repainting them in light colors. Add a bunch of cheerful fresh flowers to your grocery cart to remind you that spring always comes.
Exercise has been shown to lessen the winter blues and reduce stress at the same time. In fact, exercise is often the first prescription offered to treat depression. Dig out some comfortable footgear to keep your toes warm and walk a brisk mile when the weather is decent. Even when it’s cloudy, the daylight exposure is helpful. For the days the weather is truly ugly, dust off the treadmill, install it in a bright room, and get on it. Visit your gym regularly. Join a gym. Give yourself a gold star every day for every day you exercise.
Ask your healthcare provider about special light therapy. Research shows the majority of people with SAD benefit significantly from light boxes. These boxes emit high-intensity light of 2,500 to 10,000 lux (a measure of intensity) compared to a normal light fixture that emits 250 to 500 lux.
A light box creates an effect similar to the sun’s rays. The high intensities seem to lessen the brain’s secretion of melatonin—a hormone that regulates sleep patterns and is generally highest at night. Too much daytime melatonin can lead to an unhealthy sleep-wake schedule so persons with SAD should expose themselves to sunlight or a light box in the early morning.
Generally these boxes should be used daily a half hour up to two hours. Many people find relief within two week. Boxes range in price from around $50 to more than $200. Some insurance plans cover or partly cover their cost.
A less expensive option would be to replace bulbs in your home with brighter, full-spectrum bulbs. They are more expensive than standard bulbs, but the light they produce is similar to natural sunlight.
Another device is a dawn simulator, a lamp that switches on before dawn and gradually increases the light in the room to imitate the rising sun. Prices range from around $20 for a device using your own lamp to more than $100.
Many people experiencing SAD seem to crave high-sugar comfort goods, possibly because they increase energy levels. But these energy boosts are short term and can lead to unwanted weight gain.
Just the same old advice for a more healthy diet: increase whole grains, fruits, and veggies.
If exercise, good diet, and a light box don’t do the trick, remember that SAD is a form of depression. Visit your healthcare provider to see about a short-term prescription for an anti-depressant or even some psychotherapy. These have proved effective for many people with SAD.
And remember, the days are growing longer and soon the crocus and daffodils will be heralding spring.
Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County near Charlottesville. The morning sun shines right on her office chair in winter as it rises over Carter Mountain. Starting in January, she always forces some cuttings from their forsythia bushes and Bradford pear tree for an early indoor spring.