Seasonal Affective Disorder: How to feel better when the sun doesn't shine

Seasonal Affective Disorder: How to feel better when the sun doesn't shine
Posted at 1:51 PM, Nov 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-03 13:58:11-04

Sunshine returns! After what was a long absence (with 7 consecutive cloudy days), abundant sun has finally returned to metro Detroit, for now. You'll probably want to soak up as much as you can today, because grey will again be the prevailing weather color for most of this weekend ahead.

You'll especially want to get some sun today if you live with fall-onset Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short), a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons.

Though increasing cold is part of the problem, lack of sunshine is the major driver of SAD. Even on completely sunny days this time of year, the sun is only up for about 9-10 hours a day, compared with over 15 hours day in late June. But especially from November through January, a time that includes our cloudiest months in southeast Michigan and some of our shortest days, sunshine can be hard to come by.

According to Judy Malinowski, Clinical Supervisor and therapist at St. John Eastwood clinic, SAD can range from mild to severe. In the toughest cases, it is recurrent, major depression that creates significant dysfunction in a person's life. But less severe cases are often labeled "cabin fever" or the "winter blues" by thousands of us affected. "Many people in our area suffer from SAD and never seek treatment," according to Ms. Malinowksi. She believes that most of us are at least somewhat impacted. I personally was diagnosed with fall-onset SAD years ago, but have learned to manage it fairly well using most of the strategies below.

These are the 5 most common ways to counter the effects of SAD:

  1. Get outside when it is sunny (even if it means you have to finish reading this later or squint while reading your phone). But even getting outside when it's cloudy helps, because some of the sun's energy gets through the clouds. Research has shown this is especially helpful in the first two hours after you wake up.
  2. Exercise! Not just for your physical health, but also your mental well-being. Exercise pumps out endorphins and dopamine to improve your mood. Commit to a class and/or have an accountability partner (like someone who will expect to take a walk with you). Dogs work great for this too! Exercise has been a huge help for my own SAD symptoms.
  3. Turn more lights on in your home and open the blinds. The brighter the better, especially soon after waking.
  4. Make sure you have enough vitamin D in your system and consider supplements. When you get blood work done, ask them to check your vitamin D level, because they usually don't.
  5. Socialize more. The holiday season makes that a little easier until early January, so extra effort may be required to make this happen later in January or even February, when we may be growing winter weary. Shared laughter and support can help.

Ms. Malinowski reminds us "This is not a character deficit, but a normal response to your external environment changing each year. We should remember that lots of other people around us are going through it, even if they don't talk about it."

Nearly all of us are in this together, even though some people actually love persistently cloudy weather and short days. I know this because my mother was one of them. But I'm going to wrap this up for now to go take a walk in the sun. It's good therapy!