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Behavioral Health

Tips for Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Last month we “fell back” with the end of daylight-saving time and the start of standard time. Morning comes sooner, but darkness also starts earlier.

This marks the start of fall-onset seasonal affective disorder (SAD) for millions of Americans. It’s been called the “winter blues” but for many people, there’s a lot more to it.

It’s important to know the difference between sadness and depression and how you can work through your struggles, what to expect, and when to visit a doctor for help.

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SAD Signs

About 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD and it typically lasts 40% of the year according to the American Psychiatric Association. It is a form of depression, and it has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours. SAD also gets more prevalent the farther north you live. Juneau, the capital of Alaska, which gets only six hours and 22 minutes of sunlight on Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year, sees significantly more cases of SAD than Los Angeles. But it’s still a condition that needs treatment.

Symptoms specific to fall-onset SAD include:

  • Oversleeping
  • Craving foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Low energy

There are also the more common signs of depression:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide

If you have suicidal thoughts and feel like you could be a harm to yourself or others, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255.

Sad Girl Looking at the Window

Who Gets SAD?

While anyone can be affected by SAD, it is more common in women than men, and more common in areas where there is less sunlight in winter. It’s more common in people with bipolar disorder. People with SAD typically have other mental disorders like anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or an eating disorder. It can also run in families.

It’s not clear what causes SAD but there seems to be a correlation with the chemicals serotonin and melatonin. These are hormones that help regulate our bodies. Serotonin helps regulate mood while melatonin helps us maintain a normal sleep cycle.

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Potential Treatments

The typical treatments include light therapy, medication, and psychotherapy or a combination of all three. It’s important to be aware of any additional mental health disorders you may have as light therapy could trigger manic episodes for those who are also bipolar.

  • Light therapy — Patients sit near a special light box each morning when they wake up. The light mimics outdoor light and seems to affect the brain chemicals linked to mood. It usually starts working within a few days.
  • Medications — Antidepressants help some people with SAD. It sometimes takes several weeks to notice the full benefits from an antidepressant, and you may have to try a few to find the right one.
  • Psychotherapy — This is also called talk therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that can help you identify and change negative thoughts and actions. It can also teach you healthy ways to cope, and help you manage stress.

You can also take some control by:

  • Getting outside, especially within two hours of waking up
  • Exercising regularly, which can help reduce stress and anxiety
  • Opening blinds and sitting next to windows

Help for the Mind and Body

It’s natural to feel worried, sad, and lonely from time to time. But if these feelings start to interfere with your ability to get through your daily life or start making you feel bad physically, it may be time to ask for help. To learn more about AltaMed’s Behavioral Health Services, call us at (855) 425-1777.

If you have suicidal thoughts and feel like you could be a harm to yourself or others, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255.

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Tips for Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder