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While there are enjoyable aspects to every season, winter is the time of year when some people struggle with symptoms of depression or “the blues.” Fewer hours of daylight, gray skies and cold weather can stimulate seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in 5 to 10 percent of the population. Symptoms of SAD may include trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, lack of interest in activities that are normally enjoyed, difficulty concentrating, increased or decreased appetite, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, low energy, and feeling down or depressed.
There are simple steps you can take to help boost your mood and alleviate SAD symptoms:
• When weather permits, bundle up and take daily walks outside. Being outdoors in the fresh air improves overall well-being and can increase energy. (Walking during the winter is a great form of exercise, but walks should be avoided when sidewalks and streets are icy.)
• Commit to a regular sleep/wake cycle even on days when you are not working.
• Minimize screen time in the evening. Blue light emitted from electronic devices, including televisions, disrupts sleep patterns by suppressing melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep and wake cycles.
• Engage in regular aerobic exercise, which helps decrease stress and lifts mood.
• Enhance light fixtures inside your home to provide more light.
Talk to your primary care provider if seasonal affective disorder becomes unmanageable and impacts your quality of life. Your doctor may suggest light therapy, a common treatment for minor SAD symptoms. During light therapy, people sit or work near a light box—an appliance that mimics outdoor light. Research shows this light may cause a chemical change in the brain that improves mood and provides relief from other SAD symptoms. It’s generally recommended that light boxes be used first thing in the morning for about 20-30 minutes. Placing the light box 16 to 24 inches from your face, keep your eyes open, but don’t look directly into the light. Light boxes can be purchased without a prescription, but be sure to consult your primary care doctor before using one for SAD.
Other primary treatment methods for SAD are psychotherapy (counseling) and antidepressant medications. After a thorough evaluation, your doctor can recommend the best treatments for you.