Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) - Treatment
Treatments available for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) include:
- cognitive behavioural therapy
- light therapy
Your GP will recommend the most suitable treatment option for you. Treatment will depend on the nature and severity of your symptoms. This may involve a combination of treatments.
SAD should be treated in the same way as other types of depression.
This includes using talking therapies and medication such as antidepressants.
Light therapy is also a popular treatment for SAD, although it's not clear how effective it is.
Things you can try yourself
There are some things you can try that may help improve your symptoms, including:
- get as much natural sunlight as possible - even a brief lunchtime walk can be beneficial
- make your work and home environments as light and airy as possible
- sit near windows when you're indoors
- take plenty of regular exercise, particularly outdoors and in daylight
- eat a healthy, balanced diet
- avoid stressful situations and take steps to manage stress
Talk to your family and friends about SAD. This will help them understand how your mood changes during the winter. This can help them to support you more effectively.
Psychosocial treatments focus on:
- psychological aspects - how your mind functions
- social aspects - how you interact with others
Cognitive behavioural therapy
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps you manage problems by thinking more positively. It frees you from unhelpful patterns of behaviour.
Counselling is another type of talking therapy. You talk to a trained counsellor about your worries and problems.
You will discuss how you feel about yourself and others and talk about experiences in your past. The aim is to find out whether anything in your past is affecting how you feel today.
Antidepressants are often prescribed to treat depression. They are sometimes used to treat severe cases of SAD. But evidence that they're effective in treating SAD is limited.
Light therapy can help improve your mood. This involves sitting by a special lamp called a light box. Usually for around 30 minutes to an hour each morning.
The light from by the light box simulates the light that's missing during the winter months.
The light encourages your brain to:
- reduce the production of melatonin - a hormone that makes you sleepy
- increases the production of serotonin - a hormone that affects your mood
They come in a variety of designs, including desk lamps and wall-mounted fixtures. They produce a very bright light.
You may find a dawn-stimulating alarm clock useful. It will gradually light up your bedroom as you wake up.
Who can use light therapy?
Most people can use light therapy safely. The recommended light boxes have filters that remove harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Exposure to very bright light may not be suitable if you:
- have an eye condition or eye damage that makes your eyes particularly sensitive to light
- are taking medication that increases your sensitivity to light
Talk to your GP if you're unsure about the suitability of a particular product.
Trying light therapy
Before using a lightbox, check the manufacturer's information and instructions.
- whether the product is suitable for treating SAD
- the light intensity you should be using
- the recommended length of time you need to use the light
Choose a light box that is medically approved for the treatment of SAD.
Does light therapy work?
There's mixed evidence about the overall effectiveness. Some studies have found it to be effective, particularly if used first thing in the morning.
It's thought that light therapy is best for producing short-term results. This means it may help relieve your symptoms when they occur. But you might still be affected by SAD next winter.
Side effects of light therapy
It's rare for people using light therapy to have side effects.
But some people may experience:
- agitation or irritability
- headaches or eye strain
- sleeping problems - avoiding light therapy during the evening may help prevent this
- blurred vision
These side effects are usually mild and short-lived.
Talk to your GP if you experience any particularly troublesome side effects.