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Seasonal Affective Disorder Therapy

Often referred to as the winter blues, seasonal affective disorder is a sub-set of depression that 10 million Americans are suffering with. Living here in Midwest we are more susceptible to this disorder and need to keep a watchful eye on our wintertime moods. Wisconsinites are 6 times more likely to encounter S.A.D than Floridians. This disorder usually starts in late fall or early winter and goes into remission in late spring or early summer. Women are four times as likely to be diagnosed with S.A.D, a disorder that usually is first seen between the ages of 25-35.

Many of us struggle with our mood during the winter months oftentimes feeling a malaise, weight gain, and the feeling of being trapped or isolated. These symptoms, however, do not rise to the level of S.A.D. Those suffering from seasonal affective disorder have the bulk of the following symptoms: lethargy, overeating (often a craving for carbohydrates, sweets), feelings of hopelessness or sadness, drop in energy level, irritability, social isolation, decreased physical activity, difficulty concentrating, and at times thoughts of suicide.

The causes for S.A.D. are currently unknown but most research points to a combination of environmental factors such as lack of sunlight and stress as well as genetic vulnerability. This disorder was not officially accepted by the psychological community until 1984, which is why theorists believe this is a product of a modern-day society that confines us indoors. Third shift workers have been suffering from a higher proportion of medical illnesses for years. Although researchers may argue about the causes of S.A.D. one thing they continue to agree upon as treatment approaches.

There are several effective treatment approaches to S.A.D. but clinicians agree that a combination has the greatest chance of producing effective results. Light therapy has shown impressive results for S.A.D. sufferers. This therapy involved exposure to a high powered bright artificial light. This therapy requires that you sit beside a light box for approximately 30 to 90 minutes a day, depending on the strength of the light and personal differences. You often can purchase a light box with a 30 day money back guaranty, which is time enough (usually two weeks) to return it if improvement is not seen. You can perform other activities while receiving this therapy, such as reading or watching television. This amount of light is equal to looking out the window on a sunny spring day. Research has shown that 80% get some relief and 40%-50% have remission of symptoms.

Light therapy can be supplemented by spending more time outside. Activities such as cross-county skiing and walking prove to be beneficial. A healthier diet often helps with S.A.D., as well as avoiding the urge to isolate, and reducing stressors.

Anti-depressants (SSRI’s i.e. Paxil, Zoloft) have proven to be effective in the treatment of S.A.D. They tend not to exacerbate the symptoms of lethargy and hypersomnia. None of the anti-depressant medications have been tested against each other in terms of treating S.A.D.

Psychotherapy is also an effective intervention. Helping the individual understand this disorder as well as offering coping skills and strategies is critical in the treatment process. It is also helpful to explore if their may be underlying reasons that this disorder tends to manifest itself in the winter months. Treatment tends to work best when a combination of these three treatment approaches are used.

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Brandon Wells, MS, LPC

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Brandon Wells, MS, LPC

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