by Doug Bradley, NAMI Helpline Information and Referral Associate
The holiday season brings joy to most people, but the shorter daylight and increased darkness at this time of year can have the opposite effect on those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Although the symptoms of SAD are similar to those of major depression, they typically are only seen in one part of the year, usually in the winter months.
Because SAD seems to be linked to shorter days, much research has been done with broad-spectrum light, similar to sunlight, in treating this disorder. Using a “light-box” to simulate additional sunlight during the day has helped many people with SAD. Among the advantages of light therapy are that there are no pills to take, once a light-box is purchased there is little additional cost (unlike monthly prescription refills), and an individual can determine for themselves when to use it during the day and what length of exposure works.
Like all treatments, though, there are possible downsides, most notably the possibility of “switching” from depression to mania in people living with bipolar disorder. Also, like all treatments, it does not work for everyone; it is effective for roughly half of people with seasonal depression. For individuals where more improvement is needed, antidepressant medicine and talk therapy may be used in addition to or in place of the light-box.
One therapy in particular that may be useful is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps patients identify and change thinking and behavior patterns that are harmful or ineffective, replacing them with more accurate thoughts and functional behaviors. In fact, one early trial found CBT was even more effective than light therapy in treating SAD.
A small number of people have “reverse SAD,” getting worse in the sunny summer months and better in the winter. Although this type of the illness is less understood than winter-onset depression, some researchers feel it may be caused by heat and humidity, not the hours of sunlight.
In short, while the winter months can be hard for some, there is help available. Every day may not be perfect for everyone with SAD, but the days do not have to be laden with symptoms of depression.