It’s not unusual to feel a little run down late in the year when the days grow short and the nights turn cold. For some people, the idea of driving to work in the dark and returning home in the dark becomes emotionally burdensome and saps both motivation and mood. Some people learn to cope and find strategies to keep their energy up. For others, the onset of winter is the beginning of something more serious and long-lasting. An extensive lack of exposure to natural light becomes debilitating, draining them of energy and ambition. It’s a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and it affects an estimated 6 percent of Americans every year. Its effects can be profound, but there are many effective ways to treat the condition.
SAD has been linked to a lack of exposure to natural light and a melatonin deficiency caused by the shorter days. Melatonin is a hormone that affects mood and sleep patterns. It is believed that inadequate exposure to sunlight disrupts melatonin balance and decreases the level of “feel-good” hormones such as serotonin in the brain. One of the most effective forms of treatment involves phototherapy, or light therapy, in which the patient sits before a light box, which mimics natural outdoor light and enacts a beneficial chemical change in the brain.
The individual begins each day sitting in front of a light box to initiate a positive physical reaction, improving mood, and, hopefully, producing an energizing effect. It’s important to discuss purchasing a light box with your doctor since treatment requires a box that emits a specific kind of white light. To get the most of light therapy make sure you get the right kind of product. Be sure to purchase a light box that gives off at least 10,000 lux at a distance of more than 14 inches. If your eyes are especially sensitive to glare, select a light box with a white or opaque diffuser, which will also help prevent light-induced headaches.
Psychotherapy can help you recognize and alter negative thoughts and behaviors that are contributing to your condition and furthering the cycle of depression. Part of this therapy involves eliminating harmful patterns and engaging in physical activity and positive social interaction. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often effective at helping seasonal affective disorder sufferers identify negative triggers that perpetuate their condition. CBT teaches you to make specific alterations to your behavioral and thought patterns and, in doing so, making it easier to respond positively to negative external stimuli.
People with SAD are often stricken with serious emotional and physical symptoms that sometimes require medical assistance. This might cause a doctor to recommend treatment with antidepressants in order to alleviate the manifestations of the condition. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are the preferred antidepressant for treating SAD. They heighten serotonin levels, which helps improve your mood. The one most often prescribed is a version of the antidepressant Bupropion because it is effective in preventing depression in people who suffer from SAD. In especially persistent cases, other antidepressants may also be prescribed.
SAD is a condition where the sufferer can contribute significantly to his own treatment. Most self-care tactics are quite simple. For example, if your workstation is in a part of the office that gets little or no sunlight, try to spend part of the day working near an outside window, perhaps in an empty conference room for at least a couple of hours. If that’s impossible, make a point of going outside at lunch by going for a walk. Position your light box nearby at work, and add some green houseplants (if you’re self-conscious about setting up a light box on your desk, be aware that some come in the form of desk lamps).
Exercise is an excellent way to get the blood pumping and increase endorphin activity in the brain, which makes you feel better. Anything you can do to brighten things at work and or at home will be helpful in managing your symptoms. For instance, keep the blinds open during the day and see that branches are kept clear of windows. Sometimes, fresh air can also have a positive effect on your mental outlook, so open the windows for a few minutes every day as long as it isn’t too cold outside. If you have a dog, make a point of taking him for a walk in the morning and when you get home from work in the afternoon.
Alter Your Sleep Space
Your living environment plays an important role in how you feel emotionally. If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, make some adjustments to your bedroom. Start by repainting the walls with soft, soothing pastel colors, add bright lights and incorporate some greenery — Ivy and Boston ferns are good late-season houseplants. Make a point of getting to bed on time every night and waking up at the same time every morning to set your circadian rhythms and to help you get the right amount of sleep each and every night.
Also, try a gentle-wake alarm clock, a device that gradually lights up your sleep space, allowing you to wake up without being jerked out of bed at the last minute. It’s a good way to ease your transition to a new day. And don’t forget to check the state of your mattress, which is probably the most important factor in getting a good night’s sleep. Mattresses tend to wear out after seven years of use. If it’s feeling lumpy or uneven, chances are it’s time to invest in a new one.
Remember that your physical and mental well-being has a great deal to do with your emotional state. When coping with SAD, it’s important to stay active though you may be tempted to curl up under a blanket and nurse your condition. The more you can do to expose yourself to light and air and social interaction, the more you’ll be able to loosen SAD’s grip on your mind and soul.