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Seasonal Affective Disorder: Weathering the Storm

Physical Illnesses

A person with SAD may experience all types of physical ailments. These may include headaches and a variety of muscle pains. An individual may experience flu-like symptoms for extended periods of time. The immune system appears to be compromised in persons with SAD and they may be more vulnerable to illness.

Self-Medication

It is not uncommon for persons struggling with SAD to self-medicate by using drugs or alcohol to reduce the symptoms. However, research indicates that even a small amount of alcohol in a person who is depressed may exacerbate the symptoms even days after ingestion. Therefore, abstinence from alcohol and drugs is highly indicated when treating SAD.

What are Treatments for SAD?

Light Therapy

According to Dr. Rosenthal, light therapy has been shown to be effective for many persons with SAD. Treatment includes exposure to light consistently for 20-90 minutes daily. Because it is believed that the light acts on the brain via the retina, it is important to expose the eyes to the light. However, it is not effective for all people.

Mindfulness Meditation

Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus of medicine, is instrumental in bringing mindfulness practice to Western Medicine. Years of research at University of Massachusetts Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic find significant benefits to a mindfulness practice. These include the realization that sadness is a part of the emotional spectrum of human experience and we all experience sad moments in our lives.

Mindfulness allows one to live in the moment and make choices based on the present circumstance. This experience can be liberating. Further, a person may be able to identify and address negative cognition that perpetuate the depressive state.

Exercise and Diet

Research indicates that aerobic exercise not only burns calories but increases metabolism. People with SAD tend to have lower metabolism rates and aerobic exercise could be beneficial. However, it was also noted by researchers that a combination of light therapy and exercise tends to provide greater benefits than each modality individually. This combined with a low carbohydrate diet appears to help fend off the effects of carb cravings.

Medication

There are a variety of medications available to address depressive and anxious symptoms. Finding a psychiatrist who will listen and provide collaborative input is the first step. It may take time to identify the correct medication or dosage, therefore, identifying a doctor whom trust is established is key. Keeping a log can prove helpful as the individual navigates the new medication and monitors for side effects and therapeutic dosage.

Vitamins

Current literature is filled with recommendations regarding vitamin supplements. As with any treatment, a collaborative discussion with a primary physician should take place. However, Dr. Rosenthal recommends taking fish oil, calcium citrate, vitamin D3, and a multi-vitamin.

Psychotherapy

Talk therapy can be highly supportive. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been effective in helping individuals who experience SAD identify negative thoughts and beliefs that perpetuate depressive and anxious feelings. CBT provides practical tools to help empower the person, as well as offering supportive information to normalize symptoms.

Conclusion

The change of season can be overwhelming for many individuals. Loss of energy, libido, and motivation along with increase in depressive or anxious feelings can create havoc in a person’s personal and professional lives.

Cultivating a treatment plan will not only ease symptoms of SAD, it will provide the individual with a sense of agency in her recovery. Empowered with these tools, she can better navigate the challenges of seasonality and serve as a reminder that spring-time will come.

Winter window photo available from Shutterstock

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Weathering the Storm