Sadness and Sunshine: Tips on combating Seasonal Affective Disorder

Local News

The sun is setting earlier and with longer, darker days, some people begin to feel sad and fall under the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

We are putting North Dakota first by giving you some tips on how to prepare for the upcoming darker days. 

We talked to Dr. Sara Kenney, a local licensed psychologist, who said there are several effective treatments.

“Seasonal Depressive Disorder, also called Major Depressive Disorder with a seasonal pattern, is more prevalent in higher latitudes and in women,” Kenney said. “This time of year, as daylight is shorter, it can start. Someone with this type of depression typically feels good during other seasons. For a diagnosis to be made, there has to be a pattern of it happening a couple of years in a row.” 

Kenney told us, like other forms of depression, medication and therapy can be useful, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy which addresses changing your maladaptive thinking patterns and behaviors.

A good example of this effect of thoughts and behaviors on mood and lifestyle is the recently trendy Scandinavian concept of “hygge” (pronounced “hooga”).

Scandinavian countries, which are located at higher latitudes, embrace the coziness of winter. Learning to find the positives — enjoying a good book by a fire, warm cozy mittens — as well as finding ways to enjoy time outdoors during winter can help your mood.  

Another good example is the kind of mood little kids experience when snow is coming, versus how we feel about imminent snow as adults. They feel joy and excitement and plan to play in it. If we just see work and cold in what’s to come, our mood will be more negative as well.

Kenney also suggested, “Bright Light Therapy” or SAD lamps. They can also be very effective if used appropriately and the proper lamps are used.

Kenney said, according to research, four out of five people will experience benefits from using SAD lamps. They should start being used about this time of year and used in the morning, not evenings, as it can affect your circadian rhythm and cause insomnia if used in the afternoon or evenings.

She suggested the lamps should be rated at 10,000 lux.  

“At times, I’ve seen light bulbs advertised as full-spectrum lighting for mood, but they aren’t strong enough if they are not 10, 000 lux,” Kenney noted.

The best lights will be full-spectrum and filter out UV-A and UV-B lighting.  They should be used with the light shining down, indirectly. There are size options like small desk lamps as well as larger ones for the floor. There are large models made to stand in front of a treadmill (diet and exercise also affect mood).

Kenney pointed out SAD is somewhat different from other types of depression where people may crave more carbs, sleep a lot, experience more fatigue. There may a lack of interest in usual activities and libido may be affected. Some individuals may have suicidal thoughts, which should always be evaluated by a professional.

Another type of light Kenney personally finds useful and also has some research to back up its effectiveness is a sunrise alarm clock.  It will start lighting up your room like the sun coming up prior to your alarm going off.  

“If you’ve ever noticed how much easier it is to wake naturally when the sun is shining through your window, and struggle in winter months, this may also be beneficial,” she said.

Some people choose to use tanning beds in winter, feeling this will be the same, but it does not have the same type of light and, Kenney notes, there is a risk of skin cancer associated with the use of a tanning bed.  

“The warmth is certainly nice, but I’d encourage people to try and find this in other ways such as a cozy blanket by the fire,” Kenney said. “Some people also find warm winter vacations can be beneficial, but of course, we can’t all get away like that.”

Dr. Sara Kenney is from Grand Forks originally, but also grew up in California and went to college and grad school in Minnesota. She moved back to North Dakota after receiving her doctorate to work as part of the National Health Service Corps (think the “Northern Exposure” TV show — that doctor was in the same federal program, working in underserved areas).

She lived in Devils Lake before moving to Bismarck four years ago and specializes in treating depression, anxiety, and trauma. She especially enjoys working with new moms and chronic pain patients and will begin working at Sanford’s Pain Clinic later this month.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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