4 Ways to Stay on Top of Seasonal Affective Disorder

recovery sleep hygiene stress management Dec 05, 2022
Seasonal Affective Disorder

The holiday season is here! What a fun time of year! The possibility of snow is in the air, holiday parties, eggnog, jingle bells, what’s not to love? Well, if you don’t always feel overjoyed about the change in the seasons, you are not alone.

With the colder weather and shorter days a lot of us are left feeling “off”. This feeling of being “off” usually re-adjusts itself as we settle into the routine of the winter season. However, for some of us, these symptoms persist and can last for the entire winter. This has been termed as “Winter-Pattern Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)” and is a common condition that millions of Americans struggle with this time of year. Some symptoms of Winter-Pattern SAD include over-sleeping, over-eating, weight gain, and social withdrawal. As physical therapists, we see this disorder affect our clients and ourselves. We have come up with some ways to stay on top of this condition in order to not let it hi-jack your winter.

1. Keep a Healthy Routine

Having a routine is not only important to keep yourself organized and make sure everything on your “To-Do List” gets checked off, but it’s an important way to regulate your body. Sleep is regulated through consistency. It is important to make sure you are settling down and going to sleep within the same 30-60 min time frame each night. That goes for waking up too! It may be hard to start this practice, but as with anything it will improve with time and consistency.

We also want to make sure that we are keeping our gym routine during the winter months. It may be challenging with traveling to see family and other obligations placed on our schedules but we need to plan for this inevitability. Priority number 1 should be your needs and that means regularly keeping your body moving in a way that makes you feel stronger and healthier.

2. Focus On The Good

Winter-pattern SAD is a type of depression. It is challenging to see the positives when we feel like we are stuck. Something that can help get us through these funks is to keep a gratitude journal. We all have notebooks or journals that go unused. Grab one and just start writing. You do not have to be a poet. This is just for you. An easy way to get started is to write the date on the top of the page and then just one thing you are thankful for that day. See if you can do this for a whole week. Then you can look back and see all the good things that happened that week.

Also, I mentioned that when we are in the depths of SAD we tend to avoid social gatherings which means we are missing out on one of the most basic human needs: connecting with others. Maybe start by picking one thing that week that gets you out of the house and around other people. It doesn’t have to be with a crowd. Go for a walk with a friend or stop by a relative or neighbor’s house and offer to do something nice for them. Sometimes it takes being around people we care about to realize we are not alone and that makes the journey a little easier.

3. Light Therapy

It is widely believed that winter-pattern SAD is linked to the loss of natural light in our daily routine. Many people have found improved symptoms when using a light box. The light box is meant to mimic outdoor light and provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light, producing as little UV light as possible. Light boxes are approximately 20 times brighter than regular indoor light. The idea is to sit in front of the light box for 20-30 minutes in the morning every day of the winter. You can work this into your daily routine.. Maybe this is when you write in your journal… Just a thought.

Please consult with your physician if you are considering using a light box. You do not need a prescription for it, but your PCP may give you some guidance on which one to use for your eye and skin type.

4. Seek Medical Help (Talk Therapy, Medication)

As we mentioned, SAD is a type of depression and a lot of times we will not be able to master this on our own. There is no shame in reaching out to a professional for some guidance. Talk therapy can really help to give you strategies to manage some of the anxiety and give you coping strategies when you feel stuck. There may also be a medication regimen that may be appropriate for you to implement or you may find you are missing Vitamin D in your diet and your doctor can recommend a supplement. If you don’t already have a licensed therapist that you work with, reach out to your PCP or family/friends for recommendations.

Shannon Hall, PT, DPT


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