It’s SAD Season: How to Help Yourself and Others

By Anna Ganser

“You’re overreacting.” This phrase, used by many people, is what persons with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) are afraid of hearing when they describe the feelings of hopelessness and drained sense of depression. Marie Vanderwarn, a college student dealing with SAD, writes that initially, she did not go to get help for her symptoms because she was worried about “being dramatic” and didn’t want to get this very reaction.

What is SAD?

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of this depressive disorder include: depression most of the day (nearly every day), lost of interest in activities once enjoyed, insomnia, changes in eating habits, agitation, hopelessness, and in severe cases, thoughts of suicide. SAD is related to changes in the seasons. Typically starting in the fall and continuing through winter, the disorder may also cause depression into the early spring and summer months.

SAD is a type of depression that affects six percent on the US population, primarily in Northern climates, according to Martin Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and medical director of the Capital Clinical Research Associates, Rockville, Maryland. In addition to the six percent that is officially diagnosed with SAD, “another 14 percent of the adult US population suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes, known as winter blues,” he says in an article he wrote with Steven Targum, MD.

Despite the fact that many people are dealing with SAD, especially in the midwest/northern regions, the reality of this disorder is not widely accepted or understood. “I generally don’t tell people about [my SAD] because I think it is hard for people who have never experienced it or don’t know someone on a personal level who has experienced it to understand what’s going on without judgment and assumptions that its just being lazy or temporarily bummed out,” Vanderwarn mentions.

“I’ve only had a couple situations where people would tell me ‘It’s all in your head. It’s just mind over matter.’ but my friends and my family are very supportive of me!”

Vanderwarn writes, however, that her own experience with SAD has allowed her to help friends and family members suffering in similar ways. “A few of my friends and a few family members of mine have dealt with it while I have been too and sharing my experience has helped them make decisions to take care of it.” By having similar experiences, she is able to relate to these loved ones and give them a safe space.

Solutions for symptoms

SAD is a difficult disorder to understand sometimes, but it is treatable. Many persons dealing with SAD are able to treat it by to taking medication, going to therapy or using external solutions such as a natural light box.

SAD is one of the few anxiety disorders that can be treated by natural methods — getting more sun! A common way to get more exposure to natural sunlight is to get a natural sunlight box. Therapy and medication are also common ways to treat SAD, but getting exposure to sun can be a low-cost alternative to therapy. One could sit in front of a light box while doing other tasks such as homework or reading, and see the benefits as it improves mood and emotions.

Vanderwarn leaves us with some advice for those who may be dealing with SAD: “Reaching out for support is important because it’s easy to get stuck in your own head and let things spiral. It’s okay to be affected by the disorder, but it’s not okay to not do anything about it and let yourself be dragged back by it.”

SAD affects 19.6 million U.S. adults in the winter months, and those are just persons who have been officially diagnosed. 


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