November 2, 2022
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that returns year after year at the same time. The most common type peaks in winter, but it often starts in the fall as days get noticeably darker and shorter.
People who are full of energy and high spirits during the summer start to feel sleepy and sluggish. Many crave sweets and starches. They gain weight. Some become deeply sad and withdrawn and don’t recover until spring.
But right now - before the symptoms of SAD and milder forms of “winter blues” reach their peak - is the best time for susceptible people to take steps to head off a more serious slump, experts say.
Left untreated, SAD can be as serious as any other form of depression. Marcie Timmerman, executive director of Mental Health America, says the increased stress on families during the holidays and winter blues could set the stage for seasonal depression. Timmerman noted Mental Health America has an online screening tool, which can be used at home to gauge depression risk. She pointed out screening for depression increases the chance of getting treatment. Research shows many primary care physicians fail to recognize depression, especially in patients of color. If you, or someone you know, are experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Timmerman explained seasonal affective disorder is often affiliated with a lack of sunlight and decreased vitamin D levels. She emphasized it is important to pay attention to warning signs, including sadness, lack of energy and oversleeping. "If you're crying every day for say, seven to 14 days, and it's impacting your work, or your school or your everyday life, that's really an indicator that you need to get some help," Timmerman advised.
What to Know About Light Therapy and SAD Doctors say it’s best to get medical advice before self-treatment with light therapy, especially if you have severe symptoms such as suicidal thoughts. And no one with past or current eye disease or a history of mania should use light devices without medical supervision.
While prices of boxes sold online can range from less than $50 to more than $1,000, those that meet the standards used in studies can be found for "about $200 or less," says Yale SAD researcher Dan Oren. Oren is an unpaid board member at the nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics, which sells and recommends some light boxes. Here are some guidelines when considering a purchase:
Use a device that provides 10,000 lux of light at a comfortable sitting distance. Some boxes sold as 10,000 lux deliver that much illumination only if your face is within a few inches of the screen.
The device should filter out ultraviolet rays. You don’t want a tanning lamp.
Don’t stare directly at the light. A light that can be positioned downward will minimize glare.
The Center for Environmental Therapeutics offers more information at www.cet.org. According to the Cleveland Clinic, up to 3% of Americans suffer from seasonal affective disorder, but the number jumps to around 10% in parts of the country with longer winters.
References: Seasonal affective disorder WebMD 10/31/2022 Screening tool Mental Health America 2022 Primary care study Medical Univ. of S.C. 03/17/2007 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 2022 Sleep information American Academy of Sleep Medicine 02/19/2020