SAD Symptoms And How To Get Relief

Updated August 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Tanya Harell

We all have our ups and downs through every season of the year. Some people find that for the most part, they feel happy and well-adjusted most of the time, but when the weather turns colder and the sun isn’t shining as much, their sunshiny moods tend to fade with the change in temperature. If that sounds like something you experience year after year, you might have a condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. It’s a condition that can affect nearly anyone. Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs at a certain time every year, usually during fall and winter.

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While there isn’t a cure for seasonal affective disorder, you’ll find comfort in knowing that there are several treatments available that help relieve its symptoms effectively. It’s possible to get through those cold and cloudy months and still feel healthy and well.

What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affect Disorder

By learning more about the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, it may help you to better understand if it’s something that applies to you. Do you find that you’re apt to be more tired in the cold, winter months? Do you tend to sleep more during that time? Have you noticed when the wintertime comes along you tend to eat more carbohydrates and that you tend to overeat in general? If this sounds like you, you might be suffering from seasonal affective disorder. The symptoms of the disorder can be mild or severe. If you feel like you’re going through major depression during certain seasons of the year, it could be because the symptoms of the disorder are the same as for major depression. The only difference is that with seasonal affective disorder, the symptoms are only present for part of the year.

According to the APA, the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are:

  • Having feelings of sadness or a depressed mood
  • Having a notable loss in doing activities you once enjoyed
  • Having changes in appetite, sometimes undereating, but often overeating
  • Sleeping less, but usually sleeping more than necessary
  • Increased fatigue and energy loss despite sleeping more
  • Increased restlessness or having slowed speech
  • Having feelings of low-worth or guilt
  • Difficulty thinking, focusing, and making decisions
  • Having thoughts of suicide or death or making attempts at suicide

Seasonal affect disorder doesn’t discriminate regarding age but people with SAD are most often between the ages of 18 and 30. There’s a relief for people of all ages.

How to Get Relief from Seasonal Affect Disorder

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If you’ve been suffering for some time with SAD and just didn’t have a name for it, getting a diagnosis is a good thing because it can get you on the path to understanding what types of treatment are available and which might work best for your condition.

The four most common types of treatment for SAD are vitamin D, psychotherapy, medication, and light therapy. Your physician will review your medical history and review your options and advise the best course of treatment for you, as well as explain any side effects.

The Benefits of Light Therapy for Seasonal Affect Disorder

Studies have shown that light therapy improves depression scores for people with SAD. Lightboxes may also improve symptoms of other types of depression, sleep disorders, dementia, jet lag, and other conditions. Lightboxes can also be helpful for workers that are trying to adjust to a night work schedule.

As long as you get the right kind of lightbox, light therapy is safe. You’ll be happy to know that there are a few side effects connected with light therapy. You may also be encouraged to learn that light therapy tends to work well with other types of therapies for seasonal affective disorder. Lightboxes are safe to use for pregnant women and nursing mothers that suffer from SAD.

How Light Therapy Works for Seasonal Affect Disorder

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A great benefit of light therapy is that it usually works fairly quickly. You may experience relief from seasonal affect disorder within just a few days, but don’t be surprised if it takes longer, even up two weeks or more. Most people find that light therapy eases the symptoms of SAD, boosts their energy levels, and helps them feel better about themselves and life, in general.

Lightboxes come in a variety of brands and pricing. Choose one that filters out as much light as possible.

Be aware that light therapy for skin conditions is different than for seasonal affective disorder. The light therapy treatment for SAD should filter out as much UV light as possible because it can damage your eyes and skin. For this reason, it’s also important not to substitute a tanning bed for light therapy for SAD as it gives off the wrong kind of light and may damage your skin.

A light therapy box gives off a bright light that mimics outdoor light in nature. All that you need to do is to place it near where you sit or work and turn it on. Researchers believe that lightboxes relieve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder because it affects chemicals in our brains that are liked to our moods and sleep.

Are There Any Risks of Light Therapy for Seasonal Affect Disorder?

As with any type of health treatment plan, it’s prudent to ask about the potential side effects of light therapy. The most common side effects are strained eyes, headache, nausea, and irritability. Some people living with bipolar disorder may find that lightbox increases symptoms of mania, euphoria, or hyperactivity. It’s wise to work with your physician if you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and you suspect that you also have SAD.

The symptoms of light therapy are usually mild and usually go away after a few days. Also, on a positive note, there are some fairly easy ways to reduce the risks and side effects of using light therapy. You can move farther away from the lightbox, decrease your treatment time, or take a few breaks from it during long sessions. It may also help if you change the time of day that you use light therapy.

People with seasonal affective disorder often find that it’s best to use light therapy while under the care of their doctor. Your doctor may even be able to provide you with some recommendations for a reasonably-priced, quality lightbox. Your lightbox for seasonal affect disorder needs to have the proper brightness and the right kind of light. The lightbox that has the right style and features will make it easy and convenient to use.

Be sure to speak with your doctor about any current medications or herbal remedies that you may be taking that will increase your sensitivity to light before starting light therapy for SAD. It’s also important to advise your physician of any eye conditions that might make your eyes vulnerable to light damage.

By doing a little research and reading reviews on light therapy boxes for SAD, you should be able to find an affordable, quality unit.

Getting Started with Light Therapy for Seasonal Affect Disorder

For most people, the best time to begin using a light therapy box for seasonal affective disorder is in the early fall when it gets cloudier in many areas. Treatment usually works best when you use the light therapy box until spring when there is an increase in sunlight. Keep in good communication with your doctor regarding the appearance and severity of symptoms, so that you can work on adjusting the timing and duration of light therapy symptoms.

Light therapy for seasonal affective disorder is most effective when your light therapy has the right combination of intensity, duration, and timing. The light needs to reach your eyes indirectly. Just exposing your skin to the light won’t be as effective.

You’ll be happy to know that you don’t need to take time out of your day to dedicate to light therapy treatment.  All that you need to do is to set your light box on a table or desk in your home or office. Feel free to read, use your computer, write, watch TV, eat, or talk on the phone as you sit near your light therapy box.

The intensity of your lightbox is recorded in lux, which is the measurement of light that reaches your skin. The typical recommendation for SAD is to use a lightbox with 10,000 lux and place it about 16-24 inches from your face. Most people use their lightboxes for SAD for about 20-30 minutes per day. Light therapy boxes with lower levels of lux may work but require longer sessions. Most people find that the best time of day to do light therapy for SAD is the first thing in the morning.

Psychotherapy for Treating Seasonal Affect Disorder

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Many people with SAD find relief by getting psychotherapy from a licensed therapist. Therapists commonly use a type of therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy which is also known as CBT. During this type of treatment, therapists help people with SAD to identify negative thoughts they’re having and help them replace those thoughts with positive thoughts. By focusing on positive thoughts, it helps to identify activities to help you through the difficult months. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of CBT for seasonal affective disorder, BetterHelp is a good place to start. The sooner that you begin a course of treatment, the sooner you can put those gloomy days behind you.

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