Q and A: Seasonal affective disorder expert explains how to beat the illness
By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
A seasonal affective disorder (SAD) expert shares tips and tricks that helped him beat the symptoms.
SAD is a condition that sets in as the light dwindles in the autumn, usually around September and October. It deepens towards the new year, and often January and February are the worst months.
SAD can be considered a mental disorder, but there are varied degrees. There are some who have a milder version, which is called the winter blues.
AccuWeather interviewed Dr. Norman Rosenthal, clinical professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School. He is a world-renowned researcher, author and psychiatrist who first diagnosed SAD and light therapy to treat it.
How do people combat seasonal depression?
1. Bring more light into your environment. This can be accomplished in several ways by putting your bedside lamp on a timer so that it turns on half an hour before your wake up time. Bring more lamps into your interior space; have one room that is especially bright with light-colored walls and light furniture to which you can retreat to on a dark day. Purchase a light therapy fixture, a box-like structure containing lights behind a diffusing screen, which are specially produced to treat SAD.
2. Combine exercise and bright light, for example, going for a walk on a bright winter day or exercising on a machine in front of a bright light.
3. Reduce stress, for example, by paying someone to do chores that are difficult for you during the winter. Also, anticipate stress and avoid it where possible -- for example, don't take on a big project that has a spring deadline attached to it, so that you will have to work hard when you are at your lowest ebb.
4. Avoid sweets and starches, which may energize you in the short run but cause weight gain, which can depress you further.
5. If these simple steps fail or if you feel severely depressed and despondent, don't hesitate to consult a mental health professional. In some instances, antidepressants can be very helpful.
Does SAD ever go away?
Seasonal affective disorder can go away, sometimes for obvious reasons. For example, if someone moves to a sunnier climate or has decreased stress in his/her life.
Sometimes when people learn about SAD, they automatically incorporate many constructive behaviors, which alleviate the symptoms. Also, in women, SAD appears to get better after menopause, perhaps for hormonal reasons.
If someone has lived in an area their whole life, can they start experiencing SAD even if they are used to the seasonal changes?
Yes, things can change in a person's life. For example, biologically such as aging or puberty, environmentally like moving and with increased stress for instance if someone takes on a difficult new job.
Does light therapy help most SAD patients?
Yes, but it usually works best when it is combined with other treatments.
Any lesser known ways to kick the winter blues?
In selected cases, I have seen people with SAD benefit from treatments that have not yet been subjected to controlled studies -- for instance, meditation and Botox injections between the eyebrows.
What are the signs and symptoms to look for in someone else?
Early signs include difficulty waking up in the morning, reduced energy and fatigue. Increased appetite, especially for sweets and starches, weight gain, difficulty focusing and concentrating that impairs the ability to get things done, withdrawal from friends and family are other symptoms.
It is important, however, to think about SAD because these signs and symptoms can be misattributed to other causes. For example, you might think a friend is becoming distant, but they are experiencing symptoms of SAD.
If you think someone else is suffering, what's the best way to help them deal with it?
Gently suggest that some of the things they seem to be dealing with may be due to SAD and direct them to appropriate resources. Consider giving them a copy of my classic self-help book "Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat SAD."
Resources for people who suffer from SAD:
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Mayo Clinic's guide to seasonal affective disorder
Winter blues: Everything you need to know to beat seasonal affective disorder
Visit Dr. Norman Rosenthal's website with comprehensive SAD information
Have you experienced SAD?
When I came to New York City from sunny South Africa in midsummer, all was well until the daylight saving time change. I began to experience many of the symptoms of SAD. These went away in the spring and summer but came back each fall and winter. They were a driving force that led me to describe and name the condition and spend many years studying and treating it.
What I want people with SAD to take away is that they can not only conquer the condition but that winter can become a time of joy, peace and celebration with the world around them.
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