Despite this winter being a bit warmer than in past years, people are still struggling with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression.
“We think the most important factor is the light dark cycle, so even if the season is a little bit warmer, usually it is still cold so it’s not like people are going outside and getting more light,” said Paul Desan, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. “So we’re certainly seeing many patients complaining of seasonal affective disorder this year.
“The truth is, it’s just plain dark when people get up in the morning and dark when they are on their way home from work,” he added.
Desan said that it is normal for human beings to feel worse during the winter months, but some people experience bigger changes in mood and behavior in the winter months, meaning they might meet the criteria for SAD.
“Nine out of 10 people will tell you they feel worse, in at least one domain, during the winter at this latitude,” Desan said. “… The surveys would suggest that up to 5% of people at this latitude, Connecticut, that is, this mid-Atlantic latitude, have seasonal affective disorder.”
People who have SAD experience changes in their mood, their energy levels, their sleep patterns, their appetite and their self esteem.
Desan said there is also Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is when people have some of the symptoms of SAD, but not all of them.
“They don’t have the full set of symptoms,” Desan said. “The most common kind of Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder [is] people who report very poor energy in the winter.”
Elizabeth Calandra, licensed marriage and family therapist at Silver City Counseling in Meriden, said that she has seen a steady rate of clients that come in with SAD.
“The one thing that I have noticed is that the people that are living with this diagnosis is that they are asking to come into the office because it gets them out of the house,” Calandra said. “Give them the ability to break up the day a little bit. I have seen that, as opposed to doing telehealth.”
Desan said that for people who had SAD or Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder, it is imperative for them to use a bright light right in the morning. He suggests people use a light with 10,000 lux.
“The research now is for half an hour, seven days a week before 8 a.m,” Desan said. “So, in other words, bright light probably makes people feel better any time of the day, but it’s the most powerful first thing in the morning … 10,000 lux is a lot of light. That’s like being outside in the middle of the summer.”
Along with light therapy, opening blinds or curtains can also help, Calandra said.
“I recommend when you’re waking up, lift up the blinds, open the curtains,” Calandra said. “Try to do things that will help with light.”
Calandra also suggests that people try to interact with others during the day.
“It’s really easy to want to isolate and not stay connected with friends or family or coworkers,” Calandra said. “Try your hardest to reach out. Make plans. Planning for the positive. Try to set something in the future that’s a positive activity that you’re looking forward to.”
Both Calandra and Sharon Clayman, clinical psychologist based in Cheshire, said that staying active is important.
“Even if you can’t get outside, some movement in the house,” Clayman said. “Movement, good diet, really make sure you’re eating well.”
For people who work at home, Calandra said to start small.
“Maybe you crack a window in your house, so you get a little bit of fresh air,” Calandra said. “Pick up the phone and call somebody. You start with the things you can do with your resources at hand and then you build upon it.”
If someone is really struggling with SAD or Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder and they are a remote worker, Clayman said to either see if you can start working in the office again or go somewhere else, outside of the home, to work.
“Some people just do better by getting out of their space,” Clayman said. “It’s hard if it’s not a good match for you to be working from home and you’re working from home, in which case I would see if you could work from another space … Get up, go for a walk during lunch, have a bite to eat. Go out, get yourself a coffee.”
Lastly, if someone is having a tough time battling SAD finding a therapist may be a next step. Calandra said, “psychotherapy is one of the best things you can do” and typically the treatment model is cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps the patient become aware of negative thinking so they can respond to it in effective ways.
“Therapy might be a really great thing to consider,” Clayman said. “… Sometimes just our problem-solving with a therapist can be enough to help.”