A number of options are available to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD). People who experience relatively mild symptoms of SAD can often alleviate those symptoms by making a few simple lifestyle changes. And while some SAD sufferers respond to light therapy, SAD patients with more severe forms of the disorder may need to resort to medication or psychotherapy.
Lifestyle and Environmental Changes
If you suffer from mild or moderate symptoms of SAD, treating seasonal depression may involve one or more of the following steps:
- Brightening your environment by adding extra lights around your home, or just arranging your schedule so that you spend as much time as possible close to bright windows in your home or office, if possible.
- Getting outside to take advantage of what light there is during the short winter days. Bundle up against the cold and take a long walk â€” and don’t make exceptions for cloudy or overcast days, because outdoor light can be helpful even if the sun isn’t shining. In addition, sunlight exposure can help raise vitamin D levels, which may help alleviate depression symptoms to some extent.
- Exercising! Just as it does for other forms of depression and anxiety, exercise can go a long way in treating seasonal disorder.
Note that the long walk you take each day may help in treating seasonal depression in three ways: as a form of mental discipline, in exposing you to more outdoor light and in getting more exercise.
If you experience severe symptoms of SAD, you may want to consider light therapy for treating seasonal depression. SAD treatment with light therapy involves sitting a few feet from a “light therapy box” for 30 to 90 minutes each day. Light therapy mimics outdoor light, and appears to cause a change in brain chemistry â€” in particular, its levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to mood.
“Blue light therapy” is an alternative to traditional white light therapy to treat SAD. While some manufacturers claim that blue light therapy is a more effective treatment for SAD, a study published in Science Translational Medicine (2010) found that blue light therapy provides no appreciable benefits over white light, and even raised concerns that blue light therapy lamps may increase the risk of macular degeneration or even blindness. Speak to your doctor before beginning a light therapy treatment plan.
For patients who don’t respond to light therapy, SAD can be treated with antidepressant medications prescribed by a doctor.
Antidepressants can take several weeks â€” or even months â€” to begin working fully. Your physician may recommend you start your treatment well before the time of year that your symptoms of SAD typically appear, and continue treatment beyond the time they disappear. Antidepressants don’t work for everyone, and some of them cause serious side effects. Talk to your doctor before taking any antidepressants for SAD.
Seasonal affective disorder can be exacerbated by an otherwise angry or sad mood, a negative attitude and stress. Psychotherapy may help in treating seasonal depression by identifying and addressing negative thoughts and behaviors. You’ll also learn stress management and relaxation techniques to minimize or reverse those detrimental thoughts and behaviors.
American Academy of Family Physicians. (2010). Mental health: Depression. Retrieved July 14, 2010 from http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/mentalhealth/depression/267.printerview.html.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Washington: American Psychiatric Association.
Gooley, J. J., Rajaratnam, S. M. W., Brainard, G. C., Kronauer, R. E., Czeisler, C. A.