It comes once again. The ground hardens and cools; the leaves turn color and fall to the ground. A chill in the air is present. And day by day, the evening comes earlier by a minute, give or take a few seconds. The Autumn equinox has arrived. Some feel joy upon the conclusion of those last few sweaty weeks of summer, but many others experience quite the opposite.
For many of us, this change in the earth’s rotation means the slow creeping dread of S.A.D, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. This disorder affects millions of Americans in the same way as major depression, but its symptoms tend to present as soon as the lack of daytime is noticeable. Hopelessness, fatigue, and lack of motivation are common traits. S.A.D. is often an unfortunate addendum for those with other mental disorders, and it’s unsurprising: most humans thrive on sunlight and the vibrant energy it supplies, and when this wonderful light starts to diminish, a gloom can set in. The cold isn’t particularly helpful either, discouraging sufferers from reaping the benefits of enjoying outdoor activities.
How can one offset the undesirable effects of these seasonal changes? Luckily, research in mental health has discovered a few ways to combat and mitigate this disorder.
Some psychiatrists might reach for a pharmacological solution to lowered mood, but acquiring a light box that mimics the sunshine is a popular, drug-free option. Also called “phototherapy,” this device uses high-powered LED bulbs to cast a brilliant white light into an often-used room. The user relaxes or works in the room with the light indirectly entering the eyes. It has been shown that the best time to use the light box is early in the morning, upon entering a stage of wakefulness, because in Autumn, the sun does not rise until later in the morning. It may also be beneficial to use the light when the sun sets around 5pm, to give the illusion of a bit more daytime once a usual workday ends. Although relatively little research has been compiled on the effectiveness of phototherapy, enough sufferers have reported finding relief from this easy, cost-effective treatment.
Staying busy in the evening
In Fall, a common complaint amongst S.A.D. sufferers is a constant feeling of malaise and boredom. Autumn can often make one feel as if a five hour stretch of darkness consists of a mood and motivation level suitable for 10pm or later. The temptation to sleep or remain inactive can be oppressive. For this reason it can be beneficial to fill the evenings with a hobby or activity that stimulates the brain and distracts an individual from the dark. A designated night with friends to improve relationships, trying some artwork or crafting, or even completing extra chores can provide a little relief from the doldrums and make the evening pass by a little faster.
Who hasn’t felt a little happier when reminiscing about a fond day at the beach, pool, or mountains? Visualizing times that remind the S.A.D. sufferer that bright, warm weather will come again can provide a significant amount of relief. However, the visualization (i.e. a daydream) doesn’t have to recall anything from reality. A fantasy can emerge from guided imagery, a type of therapy in which a teacher slowly creates a picture of well-being in one’s mind by forming a calming narrative using familiar settings. This type of therapy is used often at the end of a restorative yoga class, but guided imagery can be found on numerous apps and Youtube accounts. If the sufferer identifies with any religion or spirituality, a greater focus on prayer or meditation during the season may be optimal as well.
It’s well known of course that exercise is extremely beneficial for improving mood and physiological functioning overall, but individuals with S.A.D. should try investing in an exercise program that creates a greater challenge for their hearts and minds. Research has shown that the best form of exercise for depression is the type that involves significant cardiovascular engagement–i.e. Anything that works up a sweat and increases the heart rate for a prolonged period. The best exercises for this type of result depend on the fitness of the individual, but dynamic circuit training is a type of exercise that creates a lot of endurance and tests the limits of maximum heart rate. It has been shown that intense exercise releases endorphins in the body, chemicals that mitigate the tiredness and pain that exercise induces. It follows that the endorphins’ effect on the body also changes the mind by masking the more melancholic thoughts and feelings. Thirty minutes most days is an adequate amount of time to make a difference in mood.
Taking advantage of each beautiful day
A very important thing to remember is that all light isn’t lost to the changing of the season. In most of the States, October and November are still prone to sunny days, and warm ones at that. Take advantage of these days by opening windows and curtains, taking walks outside, and waking early to receive as much light as possible. Keep your surroundings calm and organized, and your interactions positive. With some depression-fighting tools at your disposal, the upcoming cold holidays may provide you the cheer you’ve been missing.
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