Sometimes called seasonal depression or the winter blues, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression that occurs at the same time each year, typically in winter. It can affect mood, sleep, appetite, energy levels, and self-worth, making it difficult to function in relationships, social life, work, school and everyday activities.

Though the exact cause of SAD is unclear, most believe the disorder is related to the reduction of daylight hours in winter, thereby disrupting circadian rhythms and the brain’s production of melatonin and serotonin.

According to the Northeast Nebraska Community Action Partnership (NENCAP), SAD affects approximately 1-5 percent of the population. Three out of four sufferers are women. Typically, SAD is first diagnosed in people aged 18 to 30 and becomes less likely to occur as age increases.

Some common symptoms include depressed mood, feeling irritable and anxious, difficulty concentrating, fatigue and lack of energy, appetite and weight changes, changes in sleeping patterns, and unexplained aches and pains.

There are some things you can do.

1. Get as much natural light as possible. Take short walks. Open your drapes and blinds.

2. Commit to regular exercise that is continuous and rhythmic such as walking, swimming, martial arts, or dancing where you move both your arms and legs.

3. Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. Meet a friend for coffee. Join a club. Attend a support group. Take a class. Start a new hobby. Volunteer.

4. Eat well-balanced meals. Avoid sugary foods and simple carbohydrates such as pasta and white bread. Eat whole grains, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and foods rich in omega-3 fats such as oily fish, walnuts, soybeans and flaxseeds.

5. Keep negative stress at bay. Make time for fun. Play the piano, paint, work on your car, or hang out with friends. Practice daily relaxation such as yoga.

The mainstay of winter SAD treatment is phototherapy, or light therapy. Phototherapy is effective in up to 85 percent of SAD cases. Light therapy involves daily sessions of sitting near a special light source that is more intense than normal indoor light.

In the event light therapy is not effective, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be beneficial. The right therapist can help you manage the symptoms in healthy ways and can help you curb negative thoughts, attitudes and behaviors that worsen the disorder.

As a third treatment option, your doctor may suggest antidepressant medication either alone or in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy. As with all medication, there may be adverse side effects. It is important to weigh the benefits against the risks.

If you are feeling suicidal, reach out for help:

• National Suicide hotline, 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK)

• National Suicide hotline, 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE)

• Nebraska Rural Response hotline, 1-800-464-0258

• Text “TALK” to 741741

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