Treatments for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) include:
- cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- light therapy
Your GP will recommend the most suitable treatment option for you. Treatment will depend on how bad your symptoms are. It may involve a combination of treatments.
SAD should be treated in the same way as other types of depression. This includes using talking therapies or medicines such as antidepressants. In some cases, your GP may recommend use of both.
Light therapy is also a popular treatment for SAD, but it's not clear how effective it is.
Things you can try yourself
There are some things you can try to help improve your symptoms.
- getting as much natural sunlight as possible - even a brief lunchtime walk can help
- making your work and home environments as light-filled and airy as possible
- sitting near windows when you're indoors
- taking plenty of regular physical activity, particularly outdoors and in daylight
- eating a healthy, balanced diet
- avoiding stressful situations and taking steps to manage stress
Talk to your family and friends about SAD. This will help them understand how your mood changes during the winter and how they can support you more effectively.
In addition to self-help measures, you may benefit from psychosocial treatments.
Psychosocial treatments focus on:
- psychological aspects - how you manage your thoughts and emotions
- social aspects - how you interact with others
You can either be referred by your GP for treatment, or refer yourself.
Cognitive behavioural therapy
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy. It can help you:
- recognise unhelpful patterns of behaviour
- manage your problems by thinking more positively
Counselling is another type of talking therapy. You talk to a trained counsellor about your worries and problems.
This can help you to:
- gain insights into yourself and your relationships
- develop a new range of coping skills
Find out more about counselling
This type of therapy focuses on how stressful events and relationships in your past may be affecting how you are feeling and interacting. It can help you recognise unhelpful patterns of behaviour and change them.
Ask your GP for more information.
Self-help treatment usually involves using books or online materials to understand how your thoughts, feelings and behaviours interact.
Antidepressants are often prescribed with therapy to treat depression. Antidepressants are sometimes used to treat severe cases of SAD. But there is limited evidence that they're effective in treating SAD.
Find out more about antidepressants
Light therapy may help improve your mood. This involves sitting by a special lamp called a light box. Usually you would do this for around 30 minutes to an hour each morning.
The light box simulates the light that's missing during the winter months.
It encourages your brain to:
- reduce the production of melatonin - a hormone that makes you sleepy
- increase the production of serotonin - a hormone that affects your mood
Light boxes come in a variety of designs, including desk lamps and wall-mounted fixtures. They produce a very bright light.
You may find it useful to have an alarm clock which simulates dawn. It gradually lights 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 medicine that increases your sensitivity to light
Talk to your GP if you're unsure about the suitability of a particular product.
Choosing a light box
Before using a light box, check the manufacturer's information and instructions.
- if 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 is mixed evidence about the overall effectiveness of light therapy. Some studies have found it to be effective, particularly if used first thing in the morning.
Light therapy may only give short-term results. This means it may help relieve your symptoms when you have them, but you might still be affected by SAD next winter.
Side effects of light therapy
It is rare for people using light therapy to have side effects.
But some people may experience:
- agitation or irritability
- headaches or eye strain
- sleeping problems - not using light therapy in the evening may help prevent this
- blurred vision
These side effects are usually mild and short-lived.
Talk to your GP if you have any side effects.
Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE