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, explains Henry Ford family medicine physician Dina Ibrahim, M.D.
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 Dr. Ibrahim recommends to manage seasonal blues:
- Let the light in: Light therapy, delivered by a device that contains white fluorescent light tubes covered by a plastic screen to block ultraviolet (UV) rays, can help treat SAD. Sit by the light for 15-30 minutes, 2-3 times per day.
- Exercise outside: Fresh air can help make you feel better, and exercise releases the feel-good hormone, dopamine. Win-win! When you're dressed appropriately and take safety precautions, cold-weather fitness can be a lot of fun.
- Use mind-body therapies: Practicing meditation, yoga, tai chi or even deep breathing alters brain fuction and improves quality of thoughts and feelings.
- Shift your thinking: While SAD is biological, studies show changing your thoughts and behavior can alleviate symptoms. When you're feeling down, combat those feelings by doing something social or starting a new hobby. Try to embrace the positives of the season.
- Get help: If your SAD symptoms are severe, your doctor may prescribe you antidepressant medication.
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 – Royal Oak.