Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Words by Ellen Bluestein
For most people, seasonal affective disorder — commonly known as SAD — starts in the fall and continues well into the winter months. “It saps your energy and makes you feel kind of low, moody, and depressed,” explains DAP Health Behavioral Health Director Dr. Jill Gover, affectionately known on campus as Dr. G. “And then those symptoms will resolve themselves in the spring and summer months.” While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, “It’s very likely that it’s connected to a drop in serotonin,” says Dr. Gover. “When we go into the winter months, we have less light. Sunlight produces serotonin. When we have drops in serotonin, it can trigger depression.”
Additional symptoms of SAD include sleeping too much and having intense carbohydrate cravings. “When we crave carbohydrates, we’re usually low in serotonin in our brain chemistry,” Dr. G. says. “And if we eat a really high-carb diet, it often involves some kind of weight gain, which can exacerbate the depressed feelings.” There can also be difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, low energy, oftentimes guilt, and even suicidal ideation. “When you have this winter depression, as it’s sometimes called, and just a kind of overall malaise, it’s important to seek professional help,” adds Dr. G.
According to Dr. Gover, the first line of treatment is daily exposure to light within the first hour of waking up. “Natural outdoor light appears to change your brain chemistry,” she says. “It produces serotonin.” The doctor also recommends making your environment sunnier and brighter. “Open the blinds and trim back trees to get more sunlight into your home,” she says. “Get outside, take a long walk. Simply sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on a cold or cloudy day, outdoor light is very helpful. That early light is very important.”
Exercising regularly also helps by producing serotonin as well as dopamine, the neurochemicals needed to feel good. “And it’s important to normalize sleep patterns,” Dr. G. affirms. “Go to sleep and get up at the same time every day. And don’t nap!”
With the sun shining 354 days a year on average in Palm Springs, SAD is not as prevalent here as in other parts of the country. However, for those who experience that mood shift every fall, DAP Health can help. “We offer behavioral health services and any one of our licensed clinicians can provide excellent treatment,” Dr. Gover emphasizes. One of the most effective treatments for SAD is phototherapy, which involves sitting in front of a special light box. “We have psychotherapy, we have medication management, and we can assist patients in locating a light box and give them criteria to identify high-quality products so they can also engage in light therapy.”
Dr. G.’s warning: “Winter depression can definitely become very serious and really interfere with the quality of your life. If anybody is struggling, if they are experiencing any symptoms, then I encourage them to seek therapy.”