I know it’s a season with hardcore fans: folks who praise “sweater weather” and describe the first snow as “magical.” People who look forward all year to indoor coziness–hot toddies in hand and cookies in the oven. For some, though, the literal darkness of the season can make all those wintery things feel figuratively dark as well.
For years, my winters went like this: I woke up and it was still dark out. I left work and the sun had already gone down. My energy declined. I stopped going to the gym. I’d cancel plans, see friends less often. It was harder to get work done and meet deadlines. Sometimes I felt self-disgust, and sometimes I felt apathy. I’d count down the days until the first sign of spring, when I knew I’d slowly start to feel less horrible.
It’s Okay To Be SAD
If you identify with these feelings, you, like millions of other Americans, may be experiencing a form of clinical depression called “seasonal affective disorder,” aptly abbreviated as “SAD.” SAD is depression with a seasonal pattern, and like regular ol’ year-round depression, it can really screw with your life, your relationships, and your career.
According to Kathryn Roecklein, a psychologist who studies mood disorders and seasonal depression at the University of Pittsburgh, “About 1% of people in Florida have seasonal affective disorder, and more like 5% in the Maryland latitude, and 7% in Pittsburgh, all the way up to 11% in Maine.” Roecklein says these numbers increase if you factor in people who experience “subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder,” or “winter blues,” a milder seasonal mood change that includes depression-like symptoms but isn’t as crippling.
There’s a growing representation of SAD in media and pop culture, which is great for spreading awareness. Unfortunately, a lot of the information and treatment options we see aren’t quite accurate. I absolutely love Illana Glazer in Broad City, but please do not follow her character’s approach to light therapy: Shining a bright light in your face whenever you feel like you can’t go on is not a good strategy for preserving your mental health during the darker months.
So what is? I spoke with Roecklein for a recent episode of Group, the podcast I host about mental health and mental illness, to find out. Here are a few of tips and treatment options (not to meant as a substitute for advice from a qualified medical professional, of course) for SAD sufferers or even those with less-severe winter blues.
Folks with SAD may have a disconnect between the brain and the retina of the eye, which causes them to process light less efficiently, leading to lower moods when days get shorter. Light therapy is a great option to combat this change, and it tends to work best when you use a specially made light box for 30 to 45 minutes, ideally at the same time each morning. Place the lamp about one and a half to two feet from your face while you eat breakfast, lay in bed, or even watch TV.
Light boxes that emit 10,000 lux–a measure of light intensity–are highly effective, says Roecklein, “and that’s the one finding that we have the absolute most research on.” But, she says, those lamps tend to be big and pricey. “We have less, but convincing, evidence that the LED lamps work as well as some of the larger incandescent lamps.”
The type of lamp you choose might depend on when and where you’re planning to use it, as well as how much time you have available in your day. Investing in the right model can be a little overwhelming, so here’s a breakdown of a few solid options for different types of lights at varying price points:
- SunRay II from the Sunbox Company is the tried-and-true workhorse of SAD lamps. It’s pretty expensive at $359, but it’s one of the most heavily researched models out there. The fluorescent lamp is big and heavy: 15.5″ x 23″ and 16.5 lbs, but because of its large surface area, you may find you need to use it for shorter durations.
- goLite Blu Energy Light is a compact, portable, and less-expensive option at $80. Because it’s only one and a half pounds, you can easily throw it in a bag and bring it to work with you. The LED lamp uses blue wavelengths (the kind of light that occurs naturally on very sunny, clear days), so the light is less bright but more effective.
- Lumie Bodyclock Active 250 Wake-Up Light is a dawn simulator and alarm clock. It costs $139, which is about mid-range. The light therapy starts as soon as you open you eyes in the morning, which is the time when it’s most effective. This model also acts as a white noise machine, which I’m all about when it comes to sleep. (Personally, this is the lamp I’m treating myself to this year!)
If you’re too busy to sit in front of a lamp seven days a week, there are other ways to get creative with light therapy. For example, there’s this super fashionable light visor that frees you to walk around and still receive the benefits of the lamp. Sure, you’ll look a little silly, but kicking your seasonal depression might be worth it.
Start using your lamp as soon as you begin feeling even mild symptoms of seasonal mood changes; for some people, that’s October, for others (especially further north), it’s as early as July. Roecklein also recommends checking in with a mental health professional with an expertise in light therapy to see if minor adjustments can suit your own situation.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Depression makes it hard to accomplish even simple things like getting out of bed in the morning or arriving at work on time. So it can be challenging for people with SAD to stick to their light-therapy schedules. In those cases “cognitive behavioral therapy” (CBT) might be a better option. A form of psychotherapy, it’s meant to help patients recognize distorted thoughts and problem-solve in the moment (it’s been key to managing my own depression and anxiety).
According to Roecklein, light therapy and psychotherapy have the same response rates for first-time SAD sufferers, but the latter “seems to prevent episodes the next year, even if the person does nothing,” she explains, “so they don’t have to do brush-up sessions . . . It’s like the psychotherapy helped them to learn different thoughts and behaviors the first time they did it,” and that skill set doesn’t wear off.
If this is the route you want to go, a clinical therapist who practices CBT should be able to help. Roecklein recommends picking up a copy of Coping with the Seasons by Kelly J. Rohan, a CBT workbook for SAD suffers, and going through the steps with the help of your therapist.
Again, when you’re depressed, it can be hard to get off the couch, let alone travel to the gym. But if you’re able to exercise even just a couple of times a week, the effects on your mood can be significant. Guests featured on the seasonal affective disorder episode of Group praised exercise as one of the key behaviors that reliably help them feel better during the darker days of fall and winter.
If your ideal workout is an outdoor activity like running or biking, it can be frustrating (and dangerous) when it’s below freezing and your path is crusted with ice. So use the days getting shorter as your seasonal queue to try out an alternative. For me, it’s the embarrassingly bougie phenomenon of aerial yoga. For you, maybe rock climbing? Hula hooping? You do you! Endorphins from physical activity make everything (okay, many things) better.
Often a little adjustment in your brain chemistry can turn your winter experience from absolutely unbearable to surprisingly livable. So don’t hesitate to talk with your doctor about your options for adding medication to your SAD treatment plan during the months where you’re really struggling. They’ll need to make an official diagnosis in order to write a prescription, but they’re likely to suggest a common antidepressant–typically a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) like fluoxetine (Prozac) or citalopram (Celexa), which can help neurons communicate better in the brain region that regulates mood.
Many patients find it takes a few tries to find the right medication for their body chemistry, but SSRIs tend to be good options for folks with SAD. If have year-round depression that gets worse when the seasons change, you can talk to your doctor about adjusting your dosage during that time.
Finally, if you’re interested in trying any of these methods to get through the season, the bare minimum you should do is simply let your friends or partner know. Ask them to check in with you regularly and keep you accountable. It’s easier to stay on course if you have some support.
In the meantime, take heart: The shortest day this year is December 21, and then days will start getting longer again. So be kind to yourself during these months. It’s not your fault that you’re feeling this way–actually, it’s not even winter’s–it’s just that you were blessed with brain chemistry that prefers sun to snow.
Rebecca Lee Douglas is a multimedia producer and the host of Group, a lighthearted podcast about mental health and mental illness. You can follow her on Twitter at @RebeccaLDouglas and subscribe to Group on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you download your podcasts.