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How to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder, According to a Therapist

How to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder, According to a Therapist

Find your own sunshine on dark winter days

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Though some people might write it off as the “winter blues,” seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a real and distressing form of depression. Experts don’t know exactly why it happens, but the American Psychiatric Association suggests it’s mostly triggered by the change in seasons when reduced exposure to sunlight creates a chemical imbalance in the brain. Some people might feel somber, sluggish or disinterested in activities, have difficulty concentrating or experience other symptoms during parts of the season, while others might experience them nearly every day. In most cases, which can range from mild to severe, SAD goes away as spring and summer approach.

According to Nicolle Osequeda, LMFT, clinical director at Lincoln Park Therapy Group in Chicago, the intersection of seasonal affective disorder with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic can present more complex challenges for people this year. 

The following techniques have traditionally helped with managing SAD symptoms, says Osequeda, but they also work with the special circumstances of social distancing and safe-at-home practices. After learning about the different strategies recommended by a therapist, you can choose which ones work best for you. 

Get enough light

Get enough light

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One of the most likely reasons people experience SAD is because of the lack of daylight, especially after the clocks fall back an hour. And the seasonal decrease in light in the fall and winter months can affect how a person feels, whether it is SAD or not. Osequeda says to get outside for even just a few minutes when the sun is out. “Bundling up for a quick walk outside will give you the UV rays your body craves in the winter months,” she says.

Use a light therapy box

Use a light therapy box

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If you can’t get outside for natural sun rays, you can try a light therapy lamp, which gives off a light that mimics sunlight. The light from a therapy box is significantly brighter than that of regular light bulbs, and it's provided in different wavelengths. “Using a therapy lamp 20 minutes a day will emit UV light similar to the benefits of being outside in the sun,” Osequeda says. If you tend to feel drowsy more often in the winter months, a light box can stimulate your body's circadian rhythms and suppress its natural release of melatonin — the hormone responsible for making you sleepy.

Use a dawn simulator

Use a dawn simulator

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Unlike loud and jarring alarm clocks, dawn simulators can help with SAD by waking you up with a light that gradually gets brighter and brighter, similar to the morning sun. In a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, researchers found that dawn simulators were as effective as light therapy for people with SAD.

Stick to a consistent sleep schedule

Stick to a consistent sleep schedule

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The decrease in sunlight not only impacts mood, but it also can disrupt your body’s circadian rhythm, making people with SAD more lethargic and sleepy. Maintaining a consistent schedule, particularly when it comes to sleep, can help. According to sleep experts, good bedtime habits — even on the weekends — will reinforce your internal clock, which reminds the brain when to release or curb the body’s sleep and awake signals. The National Sleep Foundation recommends limiting caffeine, setting your room to a cool temperature and exercising daily to improve your sleep cycle.

Create a cozy environment

Create a cozy environment

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If you haven’t taken the time in the last few months to declutter your space or redecorate your bedroom for better sleep, now is the time. “You are going to spend more time indoors during the winter months with decreased daylight hours, colder temperatures and inclement weather. … And you have already been at home for months already, making that space feel dull and tired,” Osequeda says. She suggests refreshing your space to make it feel renewed, cozy and comfortable.

Add warm lights and scents

Add warm lights and scents

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Create a relaxing environment inside that makes you feel restored and stimulates your senses. Osequeda recommends adding warm light and lamps to the rooms where you spend the most time. Scents can also elevate your mood and help you relax, so feel free to stock up on cozy holiday candles like pumpkin spice, cinnamon, pine and all your other favorites. 

Smell essential oils

Smell essential oils

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Aromatherapy treatment is a natural way of soothing a person’s mind and body. According to a study published in Scientia Pharmaceutica, essential oils can influence the area of the brain that's associated with emotions by stimulating a response in the central nervous system. In the study, peppermint oil improved the participants’ mood and reduced fatigue, while lavender oil promoted deeper sleep and the smell of orange oil decreased anxious feelings. To use essential oils at home, add several drops to an aromatherapy diffuser to spread it throughout a space.

Practice mindfulness

Practice mindfulness

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Engaging the five senses is just one way to ease stress and practice mindfulness. “With increased downtime, we have more time to think about our stressors, ruminate on the past or worry about the future. This can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression,” Osequeda says. She suggests mindfulness techniques like the five senses exercise. “Look around your environment for five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can smell, two things you can taste and one thing you can feel,” she says. Paying attention to your surroundings can ground you in the present moment. 

Grab a blanket and curl up

Grab a blanket and curl up

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If you’re dealing with SAD, it’s important to face your emotions as opposed to rushing past them. If you feel like doing nothing more than sinking into the couch or hiding under a blanket, allow yourself to do just that. Osequeda says to keep blankets or throws on your couch or in baskets nearby where you can grab them easily. Preparing your favorite warm beverage in a mug that brings you joy can also be a small fix.

Get into your PJs

Get into your PJs

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In addition to sipping hot chocolate and lighting some candles, you should put on warm and comfy clothes like socks and soft joggers. If you’re dealing with SAD on top of work related stress, slipping into “home clothes” can separate your two worlds and make you feel more at ease. Once you’re settled in, dive into a good book, listen to music or watch a feel-good movie, even if it means putting off chores for later.

Engage in physical activity

Engage in physical activity

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Finding time to move is incredibly helpful for your body and your mental health. Although there may be restrictions on your typical workouts due to weather or COVID-19, there are still many things you can do both indoors and outdoors like stretching or walking. “You should set aside five to 10 minutes a day to stretch or do yoga,” Osequeda says. “And even if it’s cold, a quick 15-minute walk yields many positive benefits for you and gives you an opportunity to shift your environment and get some vitamin D.”

Do yoga

Do yoga

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If you’re unsure of what type of physical activity to start with, try yoga. Studies have shown that yoga has beneficial effects on mood, depression and anxiety. Yoga’s emphasis on mind-body awareness can also be a useful tool for people dealing with seasonal depression. Focusing on poses can be a helpful way to divert attention away from sad and distressing thoughts.

Stay connected to friends and family

Stay connected to friends and family

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Fitting in time to connect with your friends and family goes a long way when dealing with depression. The shift in weather on top of social distancing guidelines makes it easier to feel isolated, which can take its toll on your mental health. “Hold yourself accountable by making specific dates with friends to catch up — even short phone calls help,” Osequeda says. Chances are people in your own circles are dealing with the same things you are. Talking about your shared experience can make you feel less alone and more connected. 

Find outdoor activities to do

Find outdoor activities to do

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Even in the winter months, there are plenty of outdoor activities you can do to get out of your home as well as spend socially distanced time with friends and family. You can go hiking in the woods, ice skating, have a bonfire with friends and more.

Try different foods

Try different foods

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Another strategy for practicing mindfulness for people dealing with SAD is to consciously rely on your five senses, according to Osequeda. One way to do that is by tasting the complex flavors of foods from different cuisines and observing the tastes and textures. (You can totally pretend you’re a judge on Chopped.) You’ll be present in the moment while chowing down on a delicious meal — how bad can that be?

Take care of someone or something else

Take care of someone or something else

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During bouts of seasonal depression, it’s easy to focus negative energy on ourselves and our lives. Redirect your attention and use your energy to take care of someone or something else, whether that’s a friend, a pet or a house plant that brightens your home.

Talk to a therapist

Talk to a therapist

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You ultimately might need more than remedies like a cozy environment or yoga to get through the winter months. An effective way to address your SAD symptoms, according to Osequeda, is by talking it out. “A therapist can support you to gain actionable coping skills to use when you're feeling depressed or anxious,” she says. “They can also help you understand and process events from your past that may still linger and cope with loneliness, isolation and disconnection that we may feel in the winter months that are now exacerbated by COVID.” Talking to a mental health professional is one of the most useful ways to deal with SAD as well as anxiety related to the coronavirus pandemic.

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