How to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder

07 Dec

By Norman L. Rosenthal

Seasonal Affective DisorderI
f you live in the northern hemisphere, the ever darker days may be getting you down. Britain, in particular, has just experienced an “exceptionally dull” November, according to meteorologists at the University of Reading, who saw just 18 hours of sunshine in the whole 30 days. Are you worried you may have what doctors call seasonal affective disorder, or a milder case of “winter blues”? And in either case, what can you do about it?

Ever since my colleagues and I first described seasonal affective disorder (Sad) at America’s National Institute of Mental Health in the mid-1980s, it was obvious that we were not dealing with an all-or-nothing phenomenon, but with a spectrum of emotional and behavioral problems linked to the seasons. At one extreme are people with Sad, who struggle during the short dark days of winter, sometimes to a disabling degree. At the other are those who wake up cheerfully, rain or shine. In between are those with the winter blues. They manage with difficulty during the dark days but are less joyful, productive and creative than usual.

How common are these problems? In a study conducted in Maryland (39 degrees north), we found that at least 4.3% of the adult population appeared to suffer from Sad, while about three times as many had the winter blues. The problem is almost certainly far worse in the British Isles, well known for cloudy winters, and with London at 51 degrees north. Perhaps that’s why Britain’s Seasonal Affective Disorder Association has been so busy since the problem was first recognized.

What’s the difference between Sad and winter blues? The degree of dysfunction is key. People with Sad suffer setbacks in their relationships and at work as they withdraw from friends and loved ones, as energy flags and concentration falters; and they are significantly unhappier. People with the winter blues tend to manage with life’s basic demands, albeit with difficulty.

But these two groups are by no means clearly demarcated. Pile the stress on to someone with the winter blues (longer work hours, tighter deadlines, a poor performance rating) and – hey presto! – the winter blues can turn into Sad. Or a person with Sad who retires – and can therefore sleep in and take it easy – may feel better, with just a mild case of the winter blues. In other words, seasonal vulnerability varies both from person to person (perhaps on a genetic basis) and from one situation to another.

The good news is that whether you have Sad or winter blues, it is possible to live a full and active life all year round. Here are eight tips for treating both conditions.

1. Recognise the problem

Early signs can be subtle. Decreased energy, fatigue, wanting to sleep more, craving sweets and pasta, slacking off at work – all classical symptoms of Sad or the winter blues – can easily be attributed to other causes. Catch it early, and you’re ahead of the game.

2. Get more light

Go for a walk on a bright winter day (morning is often best). Bring more light into your home. Trim the hedges around your windows and clean the panes of any grime that has accumulated since last winter. Make at least one room in your home the bright room to which you can retreat on a dark winter’s day. Put your bedside lamp on a timer that turns it on half an hour before you are due to wake up. Better still, get a dawn simulator (they make great gifts), which will gradually light up your bedroom in the morning.

3. Invest in a light box

If these simple measures don’t work, consider getting a light fixture specially geared towards helping people with Sad. Here are a few things to remember in choosing a suitable light box. The best-researched boxes have fluorescent light bulbs behind a screen that filters out UV light, and an illuminated area of at least one square foot. Again, morning treatments are best – the earlier, the better. Like all active treatments, light therapy can have side effects including headaches and eye strain, irritability and insomnia (especially when used late at night).

4. Get up early, keep busy …

… and be sure to plan pleasant events for yourself. Evidence shows that questioning and confronting negative thoughts and doing things that lift your spirits really do help.

5. Get moving

Exercise can work wonders, especially if you combine it with bright light – like taking a brisk stroll in the morning or working out in front of a light fixture.

6. Improve your diet

Avoid high-impact carbs such as pure sugars or white starches. You may crave them, and they may provide a temporary boost, but they’ll lead to the release of insulin, drops in blood sugar and therefore more cravings – a yo-yo pattern of unhealthy eating that causes weight gain and puts you at risk of diabetes and other metabolic problems. Low-impact carbs such as unprocessed oats, legumes, almonds and walnuts are better, as are high-protein foods, which help keep sweet cravings down.

7. Meditate

While there are no published studies to support the value of meditation in Sad, there are too many anecdotal reports to ignore.

8. Talk to a professional

There are limits to self-help. Consult a doctor if your winter symptoms are significantly disrupting your personal or work life, or you are very unhappy. There is a role for medication if symptoms become severe enough.


Related Online CEU Courses

Everyone occasionally feels blue or sad. But these feelings are usually short-lived and pass within a couple of days. When you have depression, it interferes with daily life and causes pain for both you and those who care about you. Depression is a common but serious illness. Many people with a depressive illness never seek treatment. But the majority, even those with the most severe depression, can get better with treatment. Medications, psychotherapies, and other methods can effectively treat people with depression.Some types of depression tend to run in families. However, depression can occur in people without family histories of depression too. Scientists are studying certain genes that may make some people more prone to depression. Some genetics research indicates that risk for depression results from the influence of several genes acting together with environmental or other factors. In addition, trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any stressful situation may trigger a depressive episode. Other depressive episodes may occur with or without an obvious trigger.This introductory course provides an overview to the various forms of depression, including signs and symptoms, co-existing conditions, causes, gender and age differences, and diagnosis and treatment options.


So often, we think of nutrition and its relationship to our bodies from the neck down. How it affects our heart, how it affects our colon, for example. Why do we not acknowledge its impact on our brain health as well? If a patient were to undergo an elective surgical procedure, he or she may be advised to lose weight, gain weight, or avoid certain medications or herbs beforehand. These recommendations are made to help ensure maximum recovery with minimal complications. Why would we not take this approach when dealing with mental illness as well? Shouldn’t we try to achieve optimal nutritional health of the brain if we are trying to heal it?This course discusses how good nutrition impacts a person’s mental health and well being. Includes discussions on “mental wellness” versus “mental illness,” hypothyroidism and it’s impact on mental health, neurotransmitters and amino acids, glycemic index, vitamins, fatty acids, caffeine, chocolate and aspartame, and herbal supplements and medications. Case studies are provided. This course will give the reader some insight into this concept, by providing the student with clinical research, anecdotal information and a good background for understanding the role nutrition plays in mental health.


Nearly every client who walks through a health professional’s door is experiencing some form of anxiety. Even if they are not seeking treatment for a specific anxiety disorder, they are likely experiencing anxiety as a side effect of other clinical issues. For this reason, a solid knowledge of anxiety management skills should be a basic component of every therapist’s repertoire. Clinicians who can teach practical anxiety management techniques have tools that can be used in nearly all clinical settings and client diagnoses. Anxiety management benefits the clinician as well, helping to maintain energy, focus, and inner peace both during and between sessions. The purpose of this course is to offer a collection of ready-to-use anxiety management tools.

These online courses are offered by Professional Development Resources, a non-profit provider of continuing education (CE/CEU) resources for healthcare professionals. Professional Development Resources is approved to offer continuing education by the American Psychological Association (APA); the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC ACEP #5590);  the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB Provider #1046, ACE Program); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA Provider #3159); the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR Provider #PR001); the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy (#BAP346), Psychology & School Psychology (#50-1635), Dietetics & Nutrition (#50-1635), and Occupational Therapy Practice (#34); the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board (#RCST100501); the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs (#193); and the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists (#114) and State Board of Social Worker Examiners (#5678).



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