As I write this, it is late August, mildly overcast, and there are the very earliest signs of fall – changing and falling leaves, even though it is still 82 degrees outside. For the past few years these seasonal signs also bring faint feelings of foreboding. I’m not ready yet to give up summer with all it’s outdoor activity and sunshine. I’ve come to understand that I have a mild to moderate form of Seasonal Affective Disorder, more commonly known as the winter blues, and through the years each Fall, I have developed a dread of the dark winter and my associated depressed mood. But I’m hopeful that this year will be different, because I’ve learned how to fight back against it. You can too.
I really noticed the symptoms of SAD since moving to the Midwest in 1995 from my native Southern California. In retrospect I believe I had the disorder in my teen years, as well. I grew up in a coastal town that suffered overcast, foggy weather for several months of the year. I now know that I have need for bright light to maintain a sense of well-being and when my environment becomes dark – due to fog, short days, rainy weather, and overcast skies – I get blue. Well, let’s be direct; I get depressed.
In the winter I become lethargic, foggy headed, and suffer from low motivation. My mood becomes more pessimistic and irritable. I put on weight – attempting to use food to increase my energy. I don’t have much motivation, and my productivity plummets. Then the secondary self-berating kicks in about what I should be doing and about what I’m not accomplishing. These symptoms and behaviors build as the winter progresses and are particularly bad when we have a 4 or 5 day stretch of cloudy skies. Last year we had a lot of overcast winter days and by late January I felt like I hit the wall.
But this changed when I finally took my suspicions of SAD seriously. I’d known of SAD for years because I’m a clinical psychologist. I knew of the symptoms and something of the treatments but I always tried to white-knuckle it through the winter. Finally, I decided to get serious. I read The Winter Blues by Norman Rosenthal and started putting into practice his recommended light therapy. I was skeptical at first thinking that it must be a placebo, but quickly became a believer. SAD is not so much psychological (though it has psychological affects) but biological. It is very well researched and documented. About 10% of people living in the Northern portions of the U.S. suffer from SAD and the further from the equator you live the higher the percentages are. SAD is highly corelated (and most people think caused) by low levels of light in the winter. It is believed that low light levels signal those of us with SAD that it’s time to hibernate. The lack of light hitting our retina causes hormonal changes including increasing the production of melatonin – the sleep hormone. Our brains and bodies begin to slow down, metabolism drops off, and we want to sleep. We cannot keep up with the demands of modern Western civilization that propel us through life without regard for the season of the year or time of day. In my own experience I noticed that when overcast weather would continue for four or five days I’d begin to feel down and blah. I also began to realize that sunny days coincided with an improved mood and higher energy. It didn’t matter what the temperatures were or if there was snow on the ground – light levels were definitely having a serious impact on my mood.
Treatment for SAD involves light exposure or light therapy. This involves using a very bright light at 10,000 LUX. Within a very short time, both my wife and myself noticed a considerable change in my mood. Where I live, the skies are overcast or cloudy on average 2/3 of the year, and supplementing with light therapy is a necessary tool. I use THIS LIGHT, purchased on Amazon. It worked so well I bought a second one for the office, for afternoon boosters. I get up early, make coffee, and sit next to the light (arms length away) for 45 minutes. I found that shorter treatments would still leave me a bit drowsy, and longer treatments didn’t really produce any more benefit. During my time of light therapy, I read, prepare for my day, pray (eyes open), meditate, think, and do devotions. I have received such benefit out of the additional meditation time, that I’ve added it to my morning routine year-round, even during sunny weather when I don’t need the light box. During the midwinter months when the daylight is short, I try to do a second round of light therapy in the afternoon.
This small disciplined change has made a huge impact on fighting SAD for me. I’m prepared for the winter now. I’ve already started light therapy again as the days get shorter, especially on dark overcast days. And I’m planning on reading Dr. Rosenthal’s book again as a refresher. If you think you may suffer from SAD – seek help. At the very least, read and learn about the condition. You don’t have to continue to struggle with the Winter Blues. You can fight back.