How to cope with seasonal affective disorder


Feeling blue this winter? It could be more than just a bad mood. It may be Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is caused by a lack of light in the winter months. Licensed clinical therapist Rachel Sussman explains how to cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

How to cope with seasonal affective disorder

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD):

  • SAD is a seasonal mood disorder characterized by lethargy, sadness, sensitivity and irritability.
  • It's not the same as clinical depression, however, but a physiological condition whose symptoms are caused by not getting enough natural sunlight, especially in the winter months.

Who is prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder and why?

  • It's estimated that 10 to 15 million people in the United States suffer from SAD every year.
  • People in cloudy climates and those in latitudes that have weak natural sunlight during the winter are more likely to experience Seasonal Affective Disorder.
  • Shortened daylight hours in the winter and long working hours indoors also contribute to SAD.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder doesn't pinpoint any particular age demographic though; it appears to affect kids, adults, and seniors with the same incidence.

Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder:

  • Light therapy is a popular treatment for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder. Exposure to a white light appears to work on that part of the brain that controls mood. There are white light lamps available exactly for the purpose of fighting off those winter blues. Spend some time near one while indoors during the darker months.
  • Even weak sunlight is better than none at all. Spend time outside if the sun is out at all; treating SAD with exposure to natural sunlight appears to ease moderate symptoms.
  • Eat right, get plenty of exercise, and avoid sleep deprivation.Take care of yourself. In severe cases, your physician may prescribe anti-depressants for Seasonal Affective Disorder.


DENISE: Hello there, I'm Denise Richardson for howdini. Have you ever wondered if you have seasonal affective disorder? Well, what the heck is it? I think I have it. And possibly our expert guest does.

Rachel Sussman is a relationship therapist, and we're so happy to have you with us. Let's let folks know, seasonal affective disorder or SAD, what is it?

RACHEL: It's the winter blues; and if you and I have it, you know what? There are 10 million other people walking around having it. I think about five or six years ago they actually put a real name to it, which is seasonal affective disorder, and it's like a mild depression. Some of the symptoms can be feeling lethargic, sad, irritable, really just not feeling that great.

DENISE:And some people will say, “But that sounds like depression; you know I'm going through a bad time, I'm having relationship problems, I'm having problems with my kids.” What's the difference between maybe depression and SAD?

RACHEL: Well, seasonal affective disorder is actually a physiological condition where the brain and the body are just not getting enough sunlight. And in the winter months, there's a lot less sunlight.

DENISE: Now, is there specific group of people who suffer? Do kids suffer, adults suffer, seniors suffer?

RACHEL: It's across the spectrum; and mostly, what I've heard is that it's mostly in countries where there is not a lot of light in the winter.

DENISE: Sounds like London to me.

RACHEL: Absolutely, and Paris, and New York, Boston.

DENISE: Even if you work in an office space that might be true as well?

RACHEL: Absolutely, and you know, with the work ethic of so many people these days where you're spending 12, 15 hours at work and you're not really getting any sunlight, you're probably prone to a condition like SAD.

DENISE: I'm familiar with something they call light therapy for SAD. What is light therapy?

RACHEL: Light therapy is one of the treatments that they suggest for people with seasonal affective disorder. And it's actually a certain type of lightbulb in a box and you're just supposed to put it in your living room, or put it on your desk and get lots of white light during the day, and this is supposed to help the condition.

DENISE: So when you sit, actually, I've sat in front of the white light and I find I feel as though I have an energy I didn't have when I walked in the space.

RACHEL: Well, from what I understand, it’s working on the part of your brain that controls mood and just isn't getting enough light. But there’s lots of things you can do for SAD in and above the light therapy. They recommend lots of exercise, getting plenty of sleep, eating well, just really taking care of yourself; and if nothing else works, including the light therapy, doctors are prescribing anti-depressants.

DENISE: That's on the table right now for a lot of people, sleep deprivation. Sleep is important.

RACHEL: Sleep is very important. And we're hearing more and more about people who just really are sleep deprived; and it’s affecting everything in their life, including their relationships.

DENISE:So, what do you do if you feel this way? And once again, what are the triggers that say, “You know what? Maybe I do have SAD?

RACHEL: Well, I think you really have to check in with yourself. If you're feeling just not quite like yourself, if you're noticing that maybe you're a little more irritable than normal, a little more sensitive than normal, you're crying at too many news stories or movies, you’d better check in with yourself and say what's going on here. Maybe I do have the winter blues.

DENISE: And maybe get some rest on top of that.

RACHEL: Absolutely, getting to bed early and getting enough sleep is really important, especially around the holidays.

DENISE: Because of you, Rachel Sussman, we can get through the holidays feeling a whole lot better. Thank you for being with us.

RACHEL: You're very welcome.

DENISE: And I'm Denise Richardson for howdini.

meet theexpert
  • Rachel Sussman LCSW

    Rachel Sussman LCSW Marriage and Family Therapist Rachel Sussman, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and marriage/family therapist. She has helped people improve their emotional well being, enhance their ability to engage in interpersonal relationships, and take control of their lives. more about this expert »

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