The holidays can bring family and friends together for joyous reunions but they can also bring an overwhelming sense of sadness. With the sun rising later and setting early, clouds, rain and cold (especially in the Pacific Northwest), the changing of the seasons from fall to winter can affect us negatively more than we realize. But why is that? I reached out to Pacific Medical Centers psychotherapist, Rene D. Czerwinski, to find out some answers on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What exactly is Seasonal Affective Disorder and how does it affect us internally?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a subtype of depression related to mood changes that are linked to seasonal changes. It is related to decreased sunlight and lack of Vitamin D that can affect mood balancing serotonin.

Are men or women affected more with SAD and if so, why?

Research has shown that women experience SAD more often. This may be related to fluctuating levels of estrogen.

What are some of the symptoms and warning signs of SAD?

Symptoms and signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) include prominent loss of energy, hypersomnia, overeating, weight gain, withdrawal and more easily irritated low frustration tolerance. Additional signs include loss of pleasure in activities and difficulty concentrating.

I have heard and read that light therapy is one of the best treatments for SAD. Is this true and if so, how does it work and what’s the best way to self-administer?

A light therapy box mimics outdoor light and is believed through research that this light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts one’s mood and eases other symptoms.

A therapeutic light box (for example: Happy Light) should provide exposure to 10,000 LUX of light (manufacturers have different recommendations for use) and a typical use of exposure of 10,000 lux of light is 15-30 minutes a day.

It’s important to remember that timing and consistency is necessary for light therapy to be effective and using the light early in the morning when first waking is seen as most helpful. The lamp needs to sit 16-24 inches away from one’s face and one should not look directly into the light, but instead have it on while doing other things.

I personally use one and keep it on my desk next to my computer monitor and usually have it on while I prepare for my day ahead.

Are there other daily habits you recommend to manage SAD?

Yes. I recommend getting outside for at least 15-20 minutes daily and exercising three times a week for 30 minutes. This could be anything from taking a walk outside a few times a week or having a regular exercise routine. I also recommend connecting with others when one can.

What kind of challenges do you see in patients who are affected by SAD during the holidays?

The holidays often bring on extra stress and pressure due to internal and family-related expectations. It is also easier for one to withdraw and not want to participate when feeling less energy from SAD.

How can we help our friends and family that are affected by SAD?

To help and support friends and family affected by SAD, one can encourage the use of light therapy, going outside for short bursts of walks and getting outside when the sun is out for a few minutes a day, even if it is cold outside. It is also important for friends and family of someone affected by SAD to remember to be patient and understanding when someone is doing their treatment.

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