By Marty Seitz
Access Wellness Group
I hate to be a prophet of doom, but darker days are coming, and you may fall under their spell.
As the daylight dwindles, you may find yourself falling prey to full-blown SADness (Seasonal Affective Disorder), or you may encounter its somewhat less severe form, SAS (Seasonal Affective Syndrome). Both are types of depression, just to different degrees.
The symptoms can include one or more of the following: (1) feeling more tired than usual; (2) having decreased interest in or pleasure from activities you used to enjoy; (3) withdrawing from family and friends; (4) eating more than usual; and (5) consequently gaining weight. Not everyone who develops SAD experiences all of these symptoms, and some may also experience growing irritability, depressed/sad mood (hence the acronym SAD) and an increasingly dim view of themselves, others, their lives and their future.
A full-blown case of SAD significantly impairs a person’s ability to function in his or her job and/or in his or her social roles. With the milder form that I’m calling Seasonal Affective Syndrome, a person may still be able to function but with more difficulty and/or not up to par.
You may wonder why some people fall into SADness or SASsiness as winter approaches while others do not. I’m going to oversimplify the explanation greatly by using an analogy. People who develop either malady are like solar-powered cars whose solar cells are not as efficient as the rest of the solar-powered cars around them. They need more time in the sun to obtain full power. During most of the year, they get enough sunlight to go the distances they need to go, but in the fall and winter (in the northern hemisphere), when the amount and intensity of daylight decreases, they don’t get a sufficient amount of sunlight to charge their batteries fully. Consequently, they may not have enough power to go the distances they need to go, may be more and more sluggish, slower to respond, harder to turn. The owners of these cars understandably may get frustrated, irritated and/or regret having them.
Unfortunately, trade-ins aren’t available for those suffering from SAD or SAS. However, you can improve your performance during the fall and winter months. When facing any problem, anyone typically has three major problem-solving strategies: (1) modify the environment so it suits you better; (2) modify yourself so you can function better in the existing environment; or (3) move to a different environment. Applying these three strategies to the problems of SAD/SAS leads to the following recommendations.
Modify the environment
You can modify your environment in a few different ways to alleviate SAD/SAS symptoms. You can arrange your home or office furnishings to take as much advantage of the sunlight (preferably morning sunlight) as possible to sit or stand more of the time such that direct sunlight falls on your face.
Alternatively, you can invest in a real phototherapy lamp to sit in front of you to shine on your face as you read, write, type or work for 20 minutes up to two hours a day. Real phototherapy lamps are designated as having at least 10,000 lux (a measure of light density). Full-spectrum light is not the answer; the density of the light is what matters. Good basic models can be found starting at about $200 to $300. More sophisticated models can be used as alarm clocks in that they can be located next to your bed and have an extension boom so that the light can shine on your face. Such lamps have dawn simulators set like alarm clocks to turn on dimly at first at a time of your choosing and then to get progressively brighter, thus simulating the rising of the sun. It provides an extra dose of light while you’re waking up.
Phototherapy lamps can be found online or at some local medical supply stores. Sunlamps, grow lights, natural/full-spectrum lights and suntanning beds are not the same as phototherapy lamps and do not alleviate SAD/SAS symptoms.
You can also make some adjustments in yourself to prevent or diminish the symptoms of SAD/SAS. You could choose to spend more time outside in the sunlight that does exist in the fall/winter. Use breaks/lunches to get to a place where the sun can fall directly on your face while you sit, walk or run.
If taking more advantage of the existing sunlight is either not possible or not sufficient, you could increase your exercise because exercise also can relieve depressive symptoms as effectively, though not as quickly, as antidepressant medication in some cases, according to the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.
Of course, exercising is difficult when you’re already experiencing SAD/SAS, which is why it is best used as a preventive measure. But if you’re already experiencing symptoms, exercising still may be a possibility if you can join some kind of group exercise experience such as a fitness class or a fall/winter team sport. If nothing else, arrange to exercise with someone else to whom you can be accountable. You could invest in home gym equipment or join a local YMCA or fitness club. Finally, many people simply walk in the mall when it is too dark, cold or wet outside.
Another way to adapt to the darker fall/winter environment is to get an evaluation for antidepressant medication. As with using allergy medication for seasonal allergies, some people cope with SAD by using antidepressant medication just during the fall/winter months. The newer antidepressants often have minimal, if any, side effects and are widely used by many people. Those already on an antidepressant may need an adjustment in dosage or a supplemental augmenting medication.
Move to a different environment
Northerners who spend winters in Florida are known as snowbirds because they migrate south for the winter. People with severe debilitating SAD and who don’t respond to any of the previous suggestions, may need to find a way to spend their falls and winters farther south or may need to move south permanently. SAD is more prevalent the farther north you go. For some, regular weekends at the beach may be sufficient.
Under medical supervision
Be sure to check with a qualified medical/psychiatric professional before employing any of these remedies. In some people, phototherapy and antidepressant medications can trigger hypomanic and manic symptoms. As with any serious physical treatment, medical supervision is required.
You can stop yourself from falling into SAD or SAS, but even if you have fallen into SAD or SAS, you can get up again.
Marty Seitz is an associate professor of psychology in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Asbury University, where he has taught since 1989. He got his bachelor’s in psychology from Asbury University, studied at Asbury Theological Seminary, got a master’s degree in community counseling and a doctoral degree in counseling psychology from Georgia State University. In addition to his teaching, he has practiced as a licensed psychologist in Lexington since 1989, doing individual and couples’ counseling and has been working with the Access Wellness Group since its inception.