Light therapy can help with SAD
If you notice periods of depression that seem to accompany seasonal changes during the year, you may suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), this condition is characterized by recurrent episodes of depression – usually in late fall and winter – alternating with periods of normal or high mood the rest of the year.
Symptoms of winter SAD usually begin in October or November and subside in March or April. Some patients begin to slump as early as August, while others remain well until January. Regardless of the time of onset, most patients don’t feel fully back to normal until early May. Depressions are usually mild to moderate, but they can be severe. Very few patients with SAD have required hospitalization, and even fewer have been treated with electroconvulsive therapy.
The usual characteristics of recurrent winter depression include oversleeping, daytime fatigue, carbohydrate craving and weight gain, although a patient does not necessarily show these symptoms. Additionally, there are the usual features of depression, especially decreased sexual interest, lethargy, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, lack of interest in normal activities, and social withdrawal.
Light therapy is now considered the first-line treatment intervention, and if properly dosed can produce relief within days. Antidepressants may also help, and if necessary can be used in conjunction with light.
The most common characteristic of people with winter SAD is their reaction to changes in environmental light. Patients living at different latitudes note that their winter depressions are longer and more profound the farther north they live. Patients with SAD also report that their depression worsens or reappears whenever the weather is overcast at any time of the year, or if their indoor lighting is decreased.
Bright white fluorescent light has been shown to reverse the winter depressive symptoms of SAD. Bulbs with color temperatures between 3000 and 6500 degrees Kelvin all have been shown to be effective.
Side effects of light therapy are uncommon. Some patients complain of irritability, eyestrain, headaches, or nausea. Those who have histories of hypomania in spring or summer are at risk for switching states under light therapy, in which case light dose needs to be reduced. There is no evidence for long-term adverse effects, however, and disturbances experienced during the first few exposures often disappear spontaneously.
If your symptoms are mild – that is, if they don’t interfere too much with your daily living, you may want to try light therapy as described above or experiment with adjusting the light in your surroundings with bright lamps and scheduling more time outdoors in winter.
If your depressive symptoms are severe enough to significantly affect your daily living, consult a mental health professional qualified to treat SAD. He or she can help you find the most appropriate treatment for you. To help you decide whether a clinical consultation is necessary, you can use the feedback on the Personalized Inventory for Depression and SAD at the Clinic for Environmental Theraputics at http://www.cet.org. For more information on SAD, visit NAMI’s website at http://www.nami.org.
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