The ways in which weather and the rhythms of the seasons affect us are reminders that we’re all part of nature’s cycle of renewal. A time of cold and darkness is followed by a rebirth, and we’re carried along with it knowing down deep that gray skies and freezing winds will melt away, leaving a bright verdance in its wake. But for people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the bleak scenes and half light of winter are annual causes of anxiety and debilitating depression that make it hard for many people to put one foot in front of the other and function normally.
SAD can produce feelings of sluggishness and irritability and sap your energy. Drawing inward, a SAD sufferer loses interest in familiar and enjoyable activities. Fatigue, sudden weight gain, and a tendency toward excessive sleep are other symptoms, which may require the attention of a doctor or therapist, particularly when someone spirals into a depression that turns dangerous. At its worst, SAD leaves profoundly affected individuals feeling hopeless or obsessed with death, even contemplating suicide.
No precise or well-tested cause for SAD has emerged, but there is a strong connection between the disorder and reduced levels of natural light during the fall and winter. It’s believed that diminished sunlight has a direct effect on one’s natural rhythms, leaving one feeling tired and depressed. SAD affects levels of the hormone melatonin, which plays a key role in your waking and sleeping cycles. It also affects levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which impacts mood. SAD generally impacts women more than men, tends to be more prevalent in young adults, and is more common among people who live far from the equator in places that don’t get much sunlight at certain times of the year.
A bright remedy
Light therapy is effective at alleviating many of the symptoms that impair one’s ability to function well. Diminished natural light affects parts of the brain that govern sleep and mood. With that in mind, many people have turned to light therapy, spending 30 minutes to an hour each day in front of a light therapy box, which mimics natural light with fluorescent bulbs that are substantially brighter than normal bulbs. Some individuals keep a light therapy box near them at work or keep one turned on at home. Remember, it’s most effective when placed above you so the light is shining downward.
Simulated morning light
The absence of morning light during the long winter months makes it hard just getting out of bed. Many medical professionals have begun recommending a dawn-simulator device, which gives off a light that gradually gets brighter, thus simulating the emergence of the morning sun. It serves as an alternative “alarm clock” that’s as effective as light therapy, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
Exercising regularly can increase endorphins and levels of serotonin, the mood-regulating neurotransmitter, causing you to feel better and more motivated. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day, either at home, at a gym, or through everyday activities like walking your dog around the neighborhood.
Your best friend
Speaking of man’s best friend, dogs can provide a powerful mood-enhancing boost if you’re suffering from SAD or other forms of depression. According to Rover.com, “As wonderful and supportive as friends and family can be when we’re experiencing the hopelessness of depression and the spirals of anxiety, the primal connection we have with dogs, their upfront expressions of affection, and their more-discernible needs (and expression of those needs), is a kind of powerful, moving simplicity that not only doesn’t pile on to the stresses of life but shows us the potential joys we weren’t able to see before.”
There are many ways to combat seasonal affective disorder. If you suspect you have SAD, reach out to friends and family or seek the help of a medical professional who can recommend a treatment that’s right for your situation. You don’t have to spend the winter suffering in silence.
Kimberly Hayes enjoys writing about health and wellness and created PublicHealthAlert.info to help keep the public informed about the latest developments in popular health issues and concerns. In addition to studying to become a crisis intervention counselor, Kimberly is hard at work on her new book, which discusses the ins and outs of alternative addiction treatments.
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