Seasonal Affective Disorder and Treating the Symptoms with Coping Strategies


It is not uncommon that shorter days and colder temperatures affect people during the winter months. As Nebraskans realize the end of daylight savings time is coming, the challenge of the common Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) approaches again.

SAD, sometimes called seasonal mood disorder, is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. It usually starts in the late fall and early winter and goes away during the spring and summer. Some people do experience this depression in the spring or summer, but it is a lot less common. Symptoms of SAD may include sadness, having a gloomy outlook, or feeling hopeless, worthless, and irritable. There may be a loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy, difficulty in sleeping or oversleeping, low energy, carbohydrate cravings and weight gain, or thoughts of death or suicide.

With the long winter ahead, managing symptoms may be more difficult. The shorter days are often a trigger for the onset of SAD, with the worst months occurring in January and February, and affecting about 5% of the U.S. population, sometimes lasting almost half of the year. It is more common in women, younger people, those living in the northeast part of the U.S. and others who live far from the equator. A person is more likely to have SAD if they or a family member have depression.

The exact causes of SAD are unknown. Researchers have found that people with SAD may have an imbalance of serotonin, a brain chemical that affects their mood. Their bodies also make too much melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, and not enough vitamin D.

The main treatment for SAD is light therapy, which replaces the sunshine that is missed during the fall and winter months. By daily sitting in front of a light therapy box, the bright artificial light may help. Light boxes are not regulated by the FDA, and some do not respond to light therapy alone. Antidepressant medicines and talk therapy may reduce SAD symptoms, either alone or combined with light therapy. Talk with a healthcare provider if this may be a good option, as well as discussing taking vitamin D supplements. A prescribed antidepressant may be needed to increase serotonin. However, professional mental health treatment may be needed and may be offered virtually. Besides private practitioners, services are available through different health organizations. Therapists can help identify individual coping plans based on what is needed.

Other solutions may include taking up outdoor exercise and having a daily routine with structure and consistency to lessen depression and offset anxiety and confusion. Other ideas for curbing the seasonal winter blues are going for a walk on a sunny day on a new route or taking your dog for a walk. Get take-out from a favorite restaurant, learn a new hobby or take an online class. Call a friend or loved one or host a virtual gathering with family members or do something nice for someone else. Talk to your doctor or faith leader if symptoms get worse or do not improve.

People with SAD are more vulnerable to depression and stress, even though they commonly withdraw and isolate in the winter months. For those without SAD, abnormal stress for some who now work from home and keep a schedule that is not their “norm”, can contribute to poor diet habits and sleep patterns. These individuals should try to maintain a sense of new normalcy, including a consistent bedtime and wake-up time. Aim for a routine for showering, dressing, and eating meals at regular intervals for good mental health, and find an activity that can be done every day inside while practicing positive thinking. Remember that this situation is temporary and it will pass. Sheri Dawson, Director of Behavioral Health, says that it’s important to take inventory of your health, mood and daily life. She says, “It’s ok to not be ok. Don’t assume that what you are experiencing is simply a case of the “winter blues”. Consult your healthcare provider and take steps to improve your health steadily throughout the year.”

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