Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — sometimes known as the “winter blues” — is an “equal-opportunity oppressor,” according to Norman Rosenthal, M.D., in his comprehensive book Winter Blues Survival Guide: A Workbook for Overcoming SAD. This form of clinical depression affects people of all ages — even kids — races and ethnic groups.
Fortunately, SAD is highly treatable. One of the keys to managing the disorder is knowing your personal pattern of symptoms. This plays a big role in how you’ll treat your disorder.
For instance, if your symptoms last during several months of winter, then light therapy may be all you need, said Dr. Rosenthal, who, along with his team at the National Institute of Mental Health, first described SAD and pioneered the use of light therapy for the disorder.
But if you have depression all year long, and it worsens during the wintertime, you might need light therapy and antidepressants, he says.
Spotting your patterns also helps you plan ahead. When you have a good idea of when you’re going to experience symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, you can make sure that you’re prepared and have the necessary resources at your disposal.
In his workbook Rosenthal features in-depth questionnaires and tools to help you better understand your symptoms, plan ahead and manage SAD. For instance, he includes these questions to help readers become more aware of their symptoms.
- “When during the year do you first notice your mood or energy level starting to sink?
- When do symptoms first get the better of you?
- What symptom gets to you first?
- What happens after that: fatigue; pessimism; sorrow; loss of interest in fun activities; loss of energy; changes in appetite; sleeping problems; other?
- Do your symptoms come on gradually or hit you over the head all at once?
- Do they start at the same time every year or fluctuate (sometimes starting in fall, sometimes at the start of winter)?
- Do your symptoms vary in intensity from year to year, with some winters being truly awful and others seeming more tiring than painful?
- In the last 5 years, which was your worst winter?
- Which was your best?
- Why do you think that was so?
- Do you feel plain old good in summer or somewhat hyper (getting little sleep, taking on too many tasks, talking too fast or too much)?
- Do your symptoms appear when the shortest days occur (near the winter solstice, December 21), or do they start soon after the days start getting shorter (after the summer solstice, June 21) and wane as soon as they start getting longer (in January)?”
Symptoms of SAD
You also might recognize yourself in the core symptoms of SAD. (But, as Rosenthal notes, “everybody’s SAD is a little different.”)
- Diminished energy
- Diminished sex drive
- Diminished mood (i.e., feeling depressed)
- Disrupted sleep
- Increased appetite
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating or processing information
If you think you have SAD, make an appointment with a mental health professional for a proper assessment. You can bring your responses to the above questions with you.
Treatment for SAD
According to Rosenthal, light therapy is the most effective treatment for SAD. For instance, he writes, you can use a light box for 20 to 45 minutes once or twice a day; create a lighter environment with extra artificial lighting at home and at work; and take vacations in sunnier places.
Stress management also is key for treating SAD. That’s because stress exacerbates the disorder. You can manage stress by engaging in enjoyable activities; exercising (especially outside in the sunlight); reducing responsibilities; meditating; and seeking both professional help and support from loved ones.
When these treatments aren’t enough, medication can help. Antidepressants are especially helpful when symptoms are severe and individuals don’t have the energy or focus to seek psychotherapy, Rosenthal writes. The antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin) is FDA-approved for preventing severe episodes of SAD.
SAD is a serious disorder that affects all areas of a person’s life. Fortunately, it’s also highly treatable.