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James Ullrich
James Ullrich

Defeating Seasonal Affective Disorder

Take the initiative to control SAD before it takes control of you.

As the sunlight hours shorten and gloom descends upon us this time of year, a common concern of clients is the setting in of depressive symptoms. It should come as surprise to clinicians that their clients may suffer from this common condition this time of year. But due to the slow, subtle way this condition creeps up on an individual, many non-clinicians (i.e. everyone else) are often unaware until they are in the grip of it.

SAD, or what has historically been called the “wintertime blues”, is now well understood and is considered a subtype of major depressive disorder in the DSM-V. It’s experienced by millions across the country (but is especially pronounced here in the perpetually rainy environs of Seattle) as a growing sense of apathy or general tiredness, a darkening of the mood similar to the darkening of the weather, a noticeable lack of the easy energy enjoyed in the sunny days of summer.

Other symptoms include weight gain, increased sleepiness, less interest in favorite activities, and increased craving of carbohydrates. Diagnostic criteria would include noticeable changes in sleep or appetite, severity of depressive thought, and the ruling out of extraneous circumstances normally precipitating a drop in mood such as a relationship breakup or other significantly negative event.

Many people think they should just “shake it off” or that it’s “all in their head.” While the second statement might be strictly true, these symptoms being experienced are likely to be a clinical case of SAD more than a passing low mood. The good news is that this is treatable. While only time can bring on the sunny warmth of summer, there are steps anyone can take to mitigate the symptoms until the gloomy days give way to springtime. They are similar to classic treatments for garden-variety depression. These include:

Light therapy: So called “light boxes”, armed with full spectrum light, can shower a SAD sufferer with mood boosting light. This passive treatment can be an effective, easy way to shave off some of the depression’s harder edges.

Spending time with family and friends: Few things can boost the mood like spending time with family and friends. Laughter is indeed a potent medicine. The vicious cycle of depression lies in the danger of being in too low a mood to go out and socialize, thus reinforcing the feeling of isolation. Force yourself to go out and see friends. They are likely suffering some of the same SAD symptoms you are, and can offer great moral support.

Exercise and Diet: Another great nonmedication treatment for depression. Of course anyone suffering SAD will feel less motivation and energy to get out and exercise, but forcing yourself to go get some exercise on a regular schedule is a key to well-being any time of year, all the more so in winter. The darkness and the depressed state naturally leads us to crave junk food and fast sugar rushes. Resist the temptation to indulge and try to keep a balanced, nutritious diet.

Psychotherapy: Just speaking with a professional clinician about your symptoms can help. The counselor may employ cognitive behavioral techniques often used when treating disorders of thought and mood. These include identifying negative thought patterns and arming the client with cognitive tools to cope with them.

Medication: In severe cases, antidepressants can aid in the treatment of these symptoms.

If you feel you’re suffering the symptoms of the appropriately named SAD, reach out to a therapist and consult your physician. It’s a long wait till springtime, so take the initiative to control SAD before it takes control of you.

About the Author
James Ullrich

Former journalist James Ullrich is a psychotherapist in Seattle.

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