One of my favorite monologues from Iliza Shlesinger is about how girls are required to love fall. If you didn’t see it, I recommend you to. For many, the fall is a time of excitement with the leaves bursting into color, new fashion collections, pumpkin spice, and the holidays just around the corner. But for others, like myself, it’s a time of dread.
Whether it’s the sadness of the greyer days or the loneliness of seeing the kids leave the house, autumn often brings unwelcome changes and a drop in a mood to people having Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD is a form of depression that occurs at the same time each year, usually in winter. Otherwise known as seasonal depression, SAD can affect your mood, sleep, appetite, and energy levels, taking a toll on all aspects of your life from your relationships and social life to work, school, and your sense of self-worth. You may feel like a completely different person to who you are in the summer: hopeless, sad, tense, or stressed, with no interest in friends or activities you normally love. While a less common form of the disorder causes depression during the summer months, SAD usually begins in fall or winter when the days become shorter and remains until the brighter days of spring or early summer.
SAD affects about 1% to 2% of the population, particularly women and young people, while a milder form of winter blues may affect as many as 10 to 20 percents of people. Since the amount of winter daylight you receive changes the farther you are from the equator, SAD is most common in people who live at least 30 degrees latitude north or south (north of places such as Jacksonville, Florida, Austin, Texas, Cairo, Egypt, and Hangzhou, China, or south of Perth, Australia, Durban, South Africa, and Cordoba, Argentina). No matter where you live, though, or how dark and cold the winters, the good news is that, like other forms of depression, SAD is treatable. The more you understand about seasonal depression, the better equipped you’ll be to manage or even prevent the condition.
It’s your body’s circadian clock that monitors changes in day length. The circadian clock is the body’s internal time-keeper; it tells us when to feel sleepy and when to wake up, and plays a significant role in a lot of other systems in our body, like hormone release, temperature regulation, metabolism, and mood. So when there’s less light during the day, some of those processes get disrupted. One study showed that individuals produced less serotonin ― one of the hormones that help regulate mood and contributes to our feelings of well-being and happiness ― in the winter months, and more when there was more sunlight.
But knowing all this science doesn’t really help me with my sad SAD. Usually, I’m just eating a lot of chocolate, but this year I decided to try to escape after-SAD diets and try something new.
I made a list of mood boosters I am going to try, and I welcome all contributors.
- Be a morning person and get outside for 30 minutes between 6 am and 10 am when daylight is most active.
2) Get moving. Exercise (even just one workout) has been shown to be a significant mood enhancer and stress buster.
3) Sort out your sleep pattern. Longer hours of darkness cause increased levels of melatonin — the sleep hormone — making you feel sleepy in the day, but restless at night.
4) Make a plan now to stay busy: Bieling advises those with the autumn blues to do all they cannot let themselves become housebound once the weather gets colder. Make plans to go out regularly for social engagements.
5) Know your stuff and get seasonal food savvy. Shorter days and lack of sunshine reduce our body’s production of serotonin, the ‘happy hormone’.
This makes us crave serotonin-boosting carbs such as pasta, potatoes, and rice, which can quickly pile on the pounds. Resist the urge and tuck into these low-fat seasonal treats, which are rich in disease-fighting antioxidants: Swede, sweet potato and pumpkins — these bright orange veg are all excellent sources of vitamin C, fiber and the antioxidant, beta-carotene. Apples and pears — apples contain heart-healthy flavonoids — some of the most potent antioxidants around — while pears are rich in soluble fiber, which helps boost digestion and lowers cholesterol. Figs — a high-fiber treat, figs are also a good source of calcium.
6) Set up a goal. With summer over and Christmas still so far away, it can be hard to feel motivated during autumn. To combat this, psychologist Avy Joseph recommends starting by achieving something small such as finally reading that book you’ve fancied for ages (even if it’s Fifty Shades of Grey!). After that, it’s time to set a bigger goal, such as getting into yoga or learning a new language.
7) Reach out to family and friends — and let them help. Close relationships are vital in reducing isolation and helping you manage SAD. Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. It may feel more comfortable to retreat into your shell, but being around other people will boost your mood. Even if you’ve retreated from relationships that were once important to you, make the effort to reconnect or start new relationships.
Call or email an old friend to meet for coffee. Or reach out to someone new — a work colleague or neighbor, for example. Most of us feel awkward about reaching out, but be the one to break the ice.
Join a support group for depression. Sometimes, just talking about what you’re going through can help you feel better. Being with others who are facing the same problems can help reduce your sense of isolation and provide inspiration to make positive changes.
Meet new people with a common interest by taking a class, joining a club, or enrolling in a special interest group that meets on a regular basis. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that’s fun for you.
Volunteer your time. Helping others is one of the best ways to feel better about yourself, expand your social network, and overcome SAD.
8) Try light therapy. There are two different ways of administering light therapy.
A light box delivers light that with up to ten times the intensity of normal domestic lighting. In most cases, you simply sit about 12 inches in front of a 10,000 lux light box for 15 to 30 minutes each morning. The light box emits a controlled amount of white light, with harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays filtered out. While the light needs to enter the eyes, you shouldn’t stare directly at the light box, but rather continue your morning routine, such as eating breakfast, reading the newspaper or working at the computer. Most people notice an improvement in their SAD symptoms after a few days and experience the full antidepressant effect in about two weeks.
A dawn simulator is a device that gradually increases the amount of light in your bedroom in the morning to simulate the rising sun and wake you up. The light gradually increases, just as natural sunlight does, over a period of 30 to 45 minutes. Instead of waking in darkness, you wake to what looks like a sunny morning. This can help reset your circadian rhythm and improve your mood. While light boxes may trigger hypomania or mania in those with bipolar disorder, there is no such risk with a dawn simulator.
9) Go to a doctor and discuss your options to get therapy if self-help doesn’t really help.
Anyway, I wish you a lot of joy this fall. Stay happy and healthy!