Are You Coping with SAD?

By: Jen McWaters, Psy.D. | November 9, 2018

I always feel better when I’ve had some time outside in the sun. The sensation of sun on my skin makes me feel more relaxed and rejuvenated. What about you?

People by the millions travel every year to sunny beaches for vacations so they can soak up some sunshine. Even in sunny places such as California, we must adjust to shorter days, standard instead of daylight savings time, and decreasing sun exposure. Working indoors and exercising inside further limit our opportunities for sunlight. Our declining exposure to the sun during winter months can profoundly affect our health and mood. In fact, the lack of sunlight can impact with enough significance to induce a depressive disorder known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

Are you coping with SAD? Its symptoms include fatigue, low mood, appetite changes, isolation, poor focus and concentration, irritability, and sleep disturbance. People living in the more northern latitudes of the U.S. have higher rates of SAD at rates of up to 1 in 10 people! Generally, the farther you live from the equator, the higher is the prevalence of SAD.

The relationship between the sun and our mood is complex, involving an interaction between light and neurochemicals in the brain. While researchers do not fully understand the mechanisms of SAD, they do know that increasing sunlight exposure resolves SAD symptoms rather quickly.

Light box therapy is often recommended for those suffering from clinical levels of SAD. The therapy is easily accessible, safe, affordable, and especially convenient if you live in a cold climate, work indoors, or getting outdoors to get your sunlight isn’t feasible. How much light therapy you need should be discussed with your doctor. If you think you’re suffering from SAD, I encourage you to seek a professional for evaluation and support.

In general, most of us would benefit from more sunlight during dark winter months. Here are easy ways to feel better:

  1. Go on walks outside, such as before work and during your lunch break
  2. Park at the back of parking lots during the day and enjoy the extra minutes of light as you walk to work or the store
  3. Engage on outdoor activities on weekends
  4. Eat outside at lunch time if you can
  5. When you are outside, try to bare your skin to the sun for some extra Vitamin D
  6. Exercise regularly and eat balanced meals, which also help to enhance mood-boosting brain chemicals

Engage a professional if you don’t feel relief or need more support. Professionals are equipped to discuss different treatment options with you, including light box therapy, supplements, or medications. If your mood tends to fluctuate in winter, be mindful about how much stress you take on, take time for self-care, and consider learning some tools for coping such as meditation to help support you.


Image: Hernan Pinera on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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