5 ways to preempt seasonal affective disorder now
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About half a million Americans suffer from the seasonal blues. Each year, like clockwork, depression sets in as the days get shorter and the weather turns colder. Instead of jumping out of bed ready to greet the day, many people want to crawl under the covers and wait for spring.
More than just "the winter blues" or "cabin fever," seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a serious form of depression that can impact a person's health, productivity and relationships.
While scientists aren't clear what exactly causes SAD, seasonal and geographic patterns suggest the disorder is linked to diminishing daylight. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body's internal clock, reduce levels of feel-good chemicals in the brain (such as serotonin), and disrupt hormones that govern sleep patterns and mood.
The good news: You don't have to suffer in silence. Treatments for SAD are remarkably effective, and if you take preventive measures before the season hits, you may be able to stave off the blues altogether.
Here are five strategies to manage seasonal blues:
1. Let in the light
The cornerstone of SAD treatment is light therapy, delivered by a device (usually a lightbox) that contains white fluorescent light tubes covered by a plastic screen to block ultraviolet (UV) rays. The best lightboxes provide 10,000 lux of illumination, which is much more intense than typical indoor light. Sit near the light (but avoid looking directly into the box) for 15-30 minutes, two-three times a day. With the proper timing and dosing of light therapy, you could start feeling better within a week.
2. Exercise outside
Netflix and Apple are poor replacements for sunshine and exercise. Even if it's cloudy or you need to bundle up a bit, exercising in the great outdoors can go a long way toward alleviating SAD symptoms. Not only do you get the benefits of fresh, outdoor air, you can also enhance your mood through the feel-good chemicals that exercise releases in the brain. A bonus: being fit may help you feel better about yourself, too, which offers an instant mood boost.
3. Practice mind-body therapies
Practicing meditation, yoga, tai chi and other mind/body practices profoundly alters the function of the brain and improves the quality of thoughts and feelings. Even just breathing deeply and practicing mindfulness can help you tune into your experience as it unfolds, rather than judge it.
4. Shift your thinking
Even though SAD is biological, studies show that changing your thoughts and behavior can help alleviate symptoms. With cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), patients learn to identify and challenge negative thoughts and behaviors that contribute to depression —and come up with alternate strategies to improve their mood. So instead of hibernating on the couch when you're feeling down, you might invite a friend out for coffee, hit an ice skating rink or take up a new hobby—anything that breaks you out of the habits that you find keep you down.
5. Get help
If your symptoms are severe, or persist for more than two weeks, talk to your doctor about medication. If you have a history of SAD, your doctor may help you prevent depressive episodes by prescribing antidepressants for the upcoming season.
While there's no surefire solution for SAD, the above strategies can help you manage symptoms. If a standard bout of the holiday blues becomes unbearable or lasts for more than two weeks, visit your doctor for an evaluation. You don't have to wait for spring to feel better!
Dr. Dina Ibrahim specializes in family medicine and sees patients of all ages at Henry Ford Medical Center – Southfield.
Need a primary care physician? Find one at henryford.com/findadoc or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
This story is provided and presented by our sponsor Henry Ford Health System.