How to Recognize and Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder

The depths of winter can be a tough time of year for many people. The weather is cold and daylight is hard to come by. Many of us are inclined to hide inside under a blanket until spring arrives. So how do you know if these feelings are more serious than just the “winter blues?”

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mood disorder that affects individuals around the same time each year. Symptoms typically start in the late fall and early winter and go away during the spring and summer months.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, in a given year, about 5 percent of the US population experiences seasonal affective disorder.

While irritability, tiredness and low energy tend to be some of the most common symptoms, other symptoms may include:

  • Overeating—especially a craving for carbohydrates
  • Oversleeping
  • Weight gain or loss
  • A heavy, ‘leaden’ feeling in the arms or legs
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Social withdrawal
  • Difficulty concentrating

Treatment Options
There are several ways to treat seasonal affective disorder. If your symptoms are mild—meaning they aren’t completely interfering with your daily life—light therapy may help. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a special “light box” for about 30 minutes a day. It mimics natural outdoor light and helps stimulate a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. While you don’t need a prescription to purchase a light box, it’s best to talk with your doctor about what will work best for you.

It's normal to have some days when you feel down or depressed, but if the feeling lingers for days at a time and you can't get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, you should make an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor can prescribe an antidepressant that may ease symptoms if they are severe.

Counseling or talk therapy is another option to treat seasonal affective disorder. Both therapies can help identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be making you feel worse. Counseling can also help you learn healthy ways to cope and manage stress.

In addition to these treatments, there are some things you can do on your own to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year.

  1. Get as much natural sunlight as possible. You can increase the amount of natural light in your home and workplace by opening blinds and drapes and sitting near windows.
  2. Exercise regularly. Regular exercise is a powerful way to fight seasonal depression. It boosts serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals.
  3. Eat the right diet. Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, will help you keep your energy up and minimize mood swings.
  4. Be social. Close relationships are vital in reducing isolation and helping you manage seasonal affective disorder. Participate in social activities, join a club or volunteer for a cause important to you. Being around other people will boost your mood.
  5. Manage stress and make time for fun. Making time for leisure activities can bring you joy, whether it be painting, playing the piano, working on your car, or simply hanging out with friends.

As a reminder, if your feelings are affecting your daily life, talk to your doctor. This is especially important if you feel hopeless, think about suicide, or turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation.

Dr. Sacchetti is a primary care physician at South Shore Medical Center.


Learn more about Primary Care at South Shore Health.