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Last year we at Alliant posted a blog entitled, Seasonal Depression: Combating the Holiday Blues. It is a thoughtful, insightful look at how the pressure of the holiday season can couple with the cold weather and early darkness and, in some people, create a seasonal depression—more clinically known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a sad reality for many Americans and is, in fact, a legitimately serious problem that often goes unaddressed by those suffering with it, as we are prone to dismiss it as, “Just the weather”; “It just gets dark so early”; or “I just always start to get this way around the holidays, and I’m not sure why, but I’m sure it will pass”. And, yes, while these feelings can and sometimes do eventually pass as winter turns back into spring, that dismisses the reality of illness that many suffer from every winter.

So, what can we do about Seasonal Affective Disorder? Well, in last year’s blog, we interviewed Dr. Diana Concannon on the subject and how clinical counseling sessions can help alleviate the symptoms and issues caused by Seasonal Affective Disorder. This year, we would like to offer a different, but equally effective answer to that question. To that end, we have interviewed Dr. Cheryl Fisher on the subject, and on the good things we can do ourselves to help alleviate the issues of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Light Therapy—What is it, and Does it Work?

One of Dr. Fisher’s primary suggestions was for people to engage in daily or semi-daily light therapy sessions. So, what is light therapy? Well, it’s not therapy in the sense of finding a psychiatrist and sitting down to talk about thoughts and feelings—it’s actually much simpler than that, though it can, and very may well be recommended to you by a psychiatrist. Light therapy is using therapeutic lamps that simulate outdoor sunshine. Often if individuals spend 20-90 minutes (depending on the individual) under the lamp, they will receive the same benefit of being outdoors in the summertime. This influences the brain via the retina, and it’s important for the eyes to be exposed to this light and will work to trick the brain into thinking it’s receiving the same quality of light it would be getting from a day outside in the height of summer.

These lamps can be purchased, typically, for around $100 and can be used in a variety of settings. As Dr. Fisher lets us know, “I’ve had clients who are students who do their HW under these lamps for 45 minutes, and it is often enough to give them energy for the rest of their day…Others will have it at work and sit under it while they eat their lunch for the same result.” Where you choose to use a therapy lamp appears to be pretty much up to you, what is important is your eyes getting that time with that light, helping to trick your brain into believing that it’s summertime, even in the dead of winter.

Diet, Exercise, and Keeping Yourself Busy

Other options to help combat Seasonal Affective Disorder are three old standbys of mental health self-care—keeping a good diet, getting exercise, and finding a hobby or activity that engages you with nature, or just the outside world in general.

On the dietary front, one of the key culprits, according to Dr. Fisher is, “the over-consumption of carbs, which can help contribute to depressive moods through a decrease in serotonin…When we eat carbs, we feel sluggish, sleepy, and while we can certainly enjoy that, it’s not necessarily a good thing.”

In terms of exercise, we have to work to break our expectation that we, as people, exist outside of nature and get some outdoor, wintertime exercise. The more we recluse ourselves, the more we seclude ourselves in our houses and avoid the weather, the more we will see ourselves live out the desire to become cozy lumps on our couches. Being in nature actually exposes us to important chemicals called Terpenes.  Terpenes are a chemical from trees and plants that we both inhale and absorb through our skin that helps increase serotonin and recruits the parasympathetic relaxation, which is a state of waking calm, often described as, “Alert, but calm.”

The best way to combat this is to have a winter activity that gets you out of the house, and preferably into nature despite the cold. Dr. Fisher says as much: “Find one thing you like to do outdoors in the wintertime. Take a walk, look at the stars, learn to ice skate.”

Personally, for me that activity is skiing, and I can confirm that I do often leave the mountain in a much better mood than when I had arrived. I can personally vouch for the efficacy of having an activity that forces you to enjoy the cold that we’ve spent most of winter working very hard to avoid.

What to Do

Ultimately, as Dr. Fisher eloquently puts it, “Any one of these treatments may or may not be effective for all people, and often it’s a combination of exercise, diet, light, for people that becomes most effective. No one thing is often the panacea.”

We need to do a better job on the whole of taking care of ourselves in the winter, of responding to our bodies’ need of quality light, our need of physical activity, and need of a quality, balanced diet—just as we would during the 8 months that aren’t between November and February.

So again, a few things you can do to take care of yourself if you believe yourself to be experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are:

  • Eat fewer carbs—a balanced diet is always a good choice;
  • Find an outdoor activity that you enjoy—skiing, hiking, ice skating are all good options
  • Engage in light therapy—you might know the difference between a lamp and the sun, but your brain won’t;
  • And see a doctor about a clinical diagnosis—this is always an important step in mental health treatment.

If you wish to learn more about Seasonal Affective Disorder, you can read this article by Dr. Fisher in the October 2015 issue of Psych Central. If learning about illnesses like Seasonal Affective Disorder interests you, consider our Masters in Clinical Counseling degree program, of which Dr. Fisher is a part of the faculty.

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