Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that hits people during certain times of the year. For most people who live with SAD, they begin to experience symptoms in the autumn and experience worse symptoms during the winter. As with other types of depression, only a doctor can diagnose SAD. If you feel depressed or hopeless, have a lack of energy, struggle to concentrate, experience changes in sleep or appetite, or have thoughts of death or suicide that worsen during the fall and winter, you should talk to your doctor. Once you are diagnosed with SAD, there are some steps you can take to manage your symptoms and improve your well-being; we share our advice for coping with seasonal affective disorder below.
Increase Your Levels of Light
While doctors and researchers are not exactly sure what causes SAD, they can point to a limited amount of sunlight as one factor. Reduced levels of sunlight alter individuals’ biological clocks and lower the level of serotonin and melatonin in our system. As a result, one of the most common forms of treatment for seasonal affective disorder is light therapy.
People with SAD sit in front of light boxes made specifically to the disorder or others like it; most use them in the morning to mimic sunrise and to balance their serotonin and melatonin levels to start the day. On average, people with SAD use their light boxes 30 minutes per day, and the light is approximately 25 times brighter than a normal light bulb. Your doctor will be able to tell you the amount of light that is best for you.
One natural way to combat the chemical imbalance that occurs in people living with SAD is to regularly exercise. When people work out, their body releases endorphins that boost the mood and make them feel happier. One study found that exercise is just about as effective at treating depression as therapy or antidepressants.
For an extra mood lift, work out with a good friend. Social isolation is common in people with SAD, as they find it difficult to have fun doing the activities they normally enjoy. If you work out with a friend, you will reduce your loneliness and increase the likelihood that you will stick to a workout schedule because you know that your friend is counting on you to show up and exercise together.
One of the best ways to combat seasonal affective disorder in the winter is to volunteer. Volunteering will get you out of the house and give you a purpose in addition to the humdrum of work and chores at home. You may develop friendships with other volunteers, and you will feel good knowing that you are helping others instead of staying home and struggling with your symptoms of depression.
It is better to volunteer with an organization that you believe in or that supports your beliefs because you will be more likely to stick with it. For example, if you love animals, volunteer at a local shelter or volunteer to be a foster family for an animal until a forever family adopts it. If you love kids, volunteer as a tutor at an after-school program or sign up to be a Big Brother or Big Sister. If you would like to volunteer in other ways, you could see if your local library needs someone to help shelve books or if your local soup kitchen needs someone to take inventory, stock shelves, or cut up vegetables.
Get Help When You Need It
While it may be difficult to admit that you need to talk with a therapist or begin group sessions, it is important that you don’t ignore your seasonal affective disorder. Being depressed during the holidays can lead to drinking and substance abuse, especially for recovering addicts.
For many people who feel lethargic and depressed during the fall and winter, seeing a doctor is best because health care professionals can determine whether you have seasonal affective disorder. Once you know if you have SAD, you can take steps to boost your mood and start feeling like yourself again, no matter the time of year.
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