Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Do you feel sad or listless within weeks of setting the clock back in the fall? Do you seem to feel happier and more energetic in the spring, when we turn the clock ahead? If so, you’re not alone. As many as twenty percent of Americans suffer from the “winter blues,” feelings of sadness and fatigue that occur during the fall and winter when daylight is reduced.

For most people, the winter blues don’t severely impact day-to-day life. But for a smaller number of people, fall and winter bring about a true winter depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which often clears up in the springtime. SAD is severe enough to impair everyday functioning at home and at work. Common features of SAD include sadness, low energy, irritability, oversleeping, cravings for carbohydrates and sweets, weight gain, and lack of interest in usual activities. Some people even have thoughts of suicide. SAD is more common in women than in men, and it appears to run in families.

The good news is that, like other forms of depression, SAD is very treatable. In addition to the standard depression therapies, light therapy (phototherapy) is an effective, relatively rapid treatment for SAD with minimal side effects. Light therapy involves timed exposure to a “light box” which produces light of a special quality and intensity. Other approaches that can be helpful include counseling, medication, and changes in diet and exercise.

Light therapy also works for those of us who don’t suffer from SAD but do get the winter blues. However, simple changes in your daily routine may help you feel better without the expense of a light box. For example, try spending more time outdoors, especially in the morning. Consider taking up a winter sport, or waking an hour earlier to take a walk before work. Practicing good stress management techniques (e.g., good nutrition, getting enough sleep, and making time for fun) can also help you stave off the winter blues.