Summer has made way for fall, and with the changing seasons comes shorter days. If you find that the shorter days bring you down, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of seasonal depression. And you’re not alone. According to Psychology Today, nearly 10 million Americans suffer from SAD. Additionally, SAD is four times more common in women than in men.
The exact cause of seasonal depression is unknown. However, scientists believe that it’s caused by one of two things. As the days grow shorter, the longer periods of darkness cause an increase in the amount of melatonin in your body, which makes you sleepier.
Ways to Prevent Seasonal Depression
Additionally, the decrease in the amount of sunlight hampers your natural production of Vitamin D, which is important for the production of serotonin. This neurotransmitter is vital for preventing mood swings. But don’t worry; you don’t have to succumb to the winter blues. Here are three proven scientific ways that you can prevent seasonal depression.
1. Let the Light In
Whether it’s the decrease in serotonin or the increase in melatonin, lack of sunlight plays some part in SAD. One proven treatment to prevent seasonal depression is the use of broadband light therapy. Essentially, you sit in front of a lightbox or wear a visor that emits 10,000-lux of a full spectrum light that is set behind UV shielding for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours per day.
However, you don’t need access to a lightbox to increase your sunlight exposure. Getting outside is your best way to get more sun. Make sure to dress appropriately; you don’t need the sun to hit your entire body for it to be effective.
Try to time your walks to take advantage of the brightest sun at noon. And if you can’t get outside, then sitting near a window during the day with the curtains and blinds open is a way to increase how much natural light you get.
Another proven method of combatting seasonal depression is to get more physical during the winter months. It can be a challenge, but exercise has long been a recommended treatment option for people who suffer from all types of depression, not just SAD. Exercise produces endorphins, which are natural mood elevators.
Of course, your best bet is to get your exercise outdoors as much as possible to combine the effects of increased natural light with the benefits of exercise. Studies using aerobic exercise have shown it to be nearly as effective in reducing the severity of depression as light therapy.
Exercise also combats one significant side effect of seasonal depression – weight gain. As the days grow shorter, a person affected by SAD often becomes more sluggish and tired. This leads to the previously mentioned weight gain, which can also feed into other types of depression. Keeping active during the winter months when seasonal depression is at its worst will help fight back both symptoms.
The last method is through cognitive-behavioral therapies or CBT. This is a two-step approach to help prevent seasonal depression. The first is by finding pleasant activities that help counteract the tendency of self-imposed isolation. The activities help to get you out of the house, reducing the time that you have to get into the negative cycle of depression. Additionally, looking forward to these activities helps to train you to seek new behaviors that do not feed into seasonal depression.
The cognitive side involves understanding and identifying negative thought patterns. Once you’ve learned what those thoughts are, you can replace them with positive ones. This usually takes place in either group therapy or one-on-one sessions, but guided meditation sessions are also helpful.
The primary benefit of CBT therapies is that they have a longer effect than light therapy alone. As you learn to manage the thoughts and behaviors that make your depression worse, you gain coping skills that help you through the rougher patches.
Of course, for the most benefit, a combination of all three therapies is ideal. The overall lifestyle changes will also bleed over into the months when seasonal depression isn’t affecting you, leading to an overall happier you.