Seasonal affective disorder is a clinical depression. It may have a nickname such as “winter blues” but it’s more than feeling gloomy because the sun is not out, Dr. Kelly Rohan, Professor and Director of Clinical Training, Department of Psychological Science, University of Vermont, says.
About half a million people in the U.S. are affected between September and April, peaking in December, January and February. Three out of four patients are women.
The cause of SAD is light and daylight wavelengths not hitting the eyes, which in sensitive people means the brain doesn't generate enough serotonin (“happy” hormone) and generates too much melatonin, causing all the other symptoms.
Not many primary prevention studies have been done to research ways to avoid developing SAD in the first place, Dr. Rohan says. “Some have shown that using bupropion XL helps with having fewer relapses.” Light therapy is another effective way and should begin at the very first cue of symptoms, she adds. Otherwise you risk “getting stuck in hibernation” – no energy, no social life, just mindless TV watching.
“If the symptoms persist for nearly every day for more than two weeks and interfere with your regular functioning – working, seeing people, enjoying hobbies – you should see your doctor,” she adds. Don’t try to figure it out on your own. “Work with a mental health professional. You have a lot of options.”
One of them is light therapy. Lightboxes give out very bright light – at least 10 times stronger than ordinary home and office lighting. Some people have reported improvement within days. However, side effects such as headaches are possible.
“Do things that make you feel better in the winter, except overindulging on carbs, taking too many naps during the day, and watching too much TV,” Dr. Rohan says. You’re entering a never-ending cycle of feeling sad without even realizing it.