Shaking off the seasonal blues

Information about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) from local psychotherapist Susan Winston: Take SAD seriously, and please get the help you need.

I usually write about things that strike me as funny but this article is about things that are SAD — as in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Yes, this is a real thing, also referred to as Seasonal Depression. For those who have it, it usually starts as the seasons change, most often the fall ending in early spring or summer.

SAD manifests itself via a feeling of depression most of the day, loss in energy, fatigue, trouble concentrating, a feeling of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities, a feeling of agitation, trouble concentrating, overeating, social withdrawal, and sometimes thoughts of self-harm.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), SAD is a direct reaction to the amount of sunlight available. For example, only 1 percent of those who live in Florida present with SAD, whereas 9 percent of those in New England do. If you are a female, you are four times more likely to be affected by seasonal changes. Scientists believe this may be due to hormonal changes triggered at certain times of the year. Less sunlight causes the brain to make less serotonin, a brain chemical related to our mood. Less sunlight = less estrogen = bad moods. Darkness may produce more melatonin in the body; a hormone in the body that helps control sleep-wake cycles. People with SAD may feel sleepier. People with SAD may produce less Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency may also cause low energy, “brain fog”, mood swings, sleep issues, and yes, ladies, less estrogen.

Aside from hoping for our rare bluebird winter Berkshire days, there is treatment for SAD:

  1. Light therapy — The role of light therapy is to replace the lack of sunlight by sitting in front of a lightbox that filters out ultra-violet rays. These lights can be purchased on Amazon and can be very effective. The NIMH suggests 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light. Amazon offers a plethora of options.
  2. Vitamin D supplements work for some, not for others, but are harmless and worth a try. Supplements are suggested because most of us do not get enough natural Vitamin D which comes first from exposure to the sun, and next by eating fatty fish like tuna, mackerel and salmon. There are Vitamin D fortified foods, like milk. The medical community has mixed views on their efficacy. However, before taking any supplement (and of course before taking any medication) talk to your primary care physician.
  3. Medication — I am not a pill pusher, but there are times that severe depression or mood swings need a psychopharmacological boost. You would need to talk to your primary care physician who might recommend you see a psychiatrist for medication.
  4. This is not a shameless plug, but CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is recommended by the NIMH and the Mayo Clinic. CBT helps you identify your negative thoughts and replace them with more positive thinking. A good therapist will also help you find forms of behavior that will get you engaged or re-engaged in activities that bring you joy. Kind of like the Marie Kondo of therapy — clean out all the old useless thoughts and find those things that bring joy.

SAD is real, but I look out today and the pouring rain has turned into the glorious beautiful snowfall. So I’m going to pop some Vitamin D, turn off my sunlamp, and go out and practice skidding down the driveway. This LA kid has not yet mastered the art of driving in snow. Steer clear because right now I feel HAPPY, not SAD.

Do take SAD seriously, and please get the help you need.