By Donna Lurie, a person managing seasonal depression for 20+ years
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a form of depression that follows a seasonal pattern – starting in the Fall and continuing through the winter months. This disorder affects more women than men. Children, teens, and adults can experience different degrees of SAD or seasonal depression.
How prevalent is SAD in the Pacific Northwest?
Living in the Pacific Northwest with gloomy, wet, and cold weather results in the highest rates of depression and SAD in the country. A 2022 poll by PEMCO Insurance found that 59% of Washington State responders suffer some seasonal affective disorder effects during the winter. The Portland-Vancouver, BC metro areas receive an average of 140-160 days of rain a year and limited sunlight in the fall and winter (due to our northern latitude).
What are some symptoms of SAD or Seasonal Depression?
Individuals differ in their symptoms and may experience some or many symptoms described below to differing degrees. At least some of these symptoms will occur during specific seasons, but not all people with SAD experience the same symptoms every year. According to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, the most common symptoms of seasonal depression are:
• Feeling listless, sad or down most of the day, nearly every day.
• Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed.
• Having low energy and feeling sluggish.
• Having problems with sleeping too much.
• Experiencing carbohydrate cravings, overeating and weight gain.
• Having difficulty concentrating.
• Being grumpy or irritable to a degree that affects relationships with others.
• Withdrawing from social situations.
What are some management strategies to address seasonal depression and its Symptoms? (Individuals will respond differently to these strategies)
- Light therapy – Light therapy is touted as a highly effective strategy with few side effects. Several companies manufacture full spectrum light lamps that counteract the low light of our geographic location and the disruption to our circadian rhythms. You need a lamp that has UV protection. Osmo Sunny Light from Osmo is a highly rated lamp, with 2,000 up to 10,000 lux and a timer – https://tryosmo.com/ Another option is Theralight Aura Bright Light with 10,000 Lux LED, sold on Amazon. I have used a Verilux lamp over several years. These lamps are relatively inexpensive and sold on Amazon. Every morning from October through April, I sit in front of the light therapy lamp for about 20 minutes. More varied and expensive lamps are manufactured by Northern Light Technologies, a company in Alaska.
- Exercise and Diet Strategies – Make a daily effort to get some natural light each day – even walking in the rain and gloom will help. Stay as active as you can and resist the temptation to be a slug – walk, exercise, cycle, dance, do yoga, run up and down steps, etc. Minimize your intake of sugar and carbohydrates – focus on fruits, vegetables, and proteins. Develop self-awareness on what triggers you to crave sugar and carbs. Find substitutes for carbs – riced cauliflower, zucchini noodles, etc. Maintain a regular sleep-wake pattern to minimize disruption of your sleep cycle.
- Activities – Push yourself to interact with family and friends to combat loneliness. Volunteer and engage in community activities and programs. Avoid hibernating/ withdrawing into your cocoon and assuming that no one cares about you.
- Make time for Creative Activities that Bring Joy – Music, art, crafts, poetry, cooking and baking for others (Give the food as presents or freeze it to reduce temptation).
- Meditation and Mindfulness – Quiet your mind and carve out time to provide peace and quiet during the hectic holiday season. I have used Headspace, an app on my phone, for many years. https://www.headspace.com/
- Medication and Supplements – Talk with your medical provider about any necessary medications or anti-depressants. I take a Vitamin D3 supplement to counter the lack of sun exposure during the Fall and Winter. Check to ensure that a Vitamin D supplement won’t interfere with other medications.
- Talk therapy – Psychotherapy (also called talk therapy or counseling) can help people with SAD by teaching them new ways of thinking and behaving and changing habits that contribute to depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy aimed at helping people learn to challenge and change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors to improve their depressive and anxious feelings. CBT has been adapted for people with SAD (known as CBT-SAD). CBT-SAD is typically conducted in two weekly group sessions for 6 weeks that focus on replacing negative thoughts related to the season, such as thoughts about the darkness of winter, with more positive thoughts. CBT-SAD also uses a process called behavioral activation, which helps people identify and schedule pleasant, engaging indoor or outdoor activities to offset the loss of interest they typically experience in the winter.
How effective are these management strategies?
According to NIMH, medical researchers directly compared CBT-SAD with light therapy – both treatments were equally effective in improving SAD symptoms. While some symptoms got better slightly faster with light therapy than CBT, a long-term study that followed SAD patients for two winters found that the positive effects of CBT seemed to last longer.