By Stacy Weiner
Mental Health America
If yours is a relatively mild case of winter depression, you may improve if you get outside more - or even just sit near your window. If yours is a more serious case, though, you'll likely need to seek some kind of treatment. Of course, it can be hard to take action when you're depressed, but keep in mind that most people experience great relief after starting one or a combination of the therapies below. Let There Be Light (in a Box)
Light therapy - sitting opposite a box that emits a sort of sunlight substitute - generally the first-line treatment for SAD. Most people need about a half-hour dose each day and can expect to see results in just a couple of days or weeks. The devices are fairly easy to use, and you can buy one on the Internet and in some drugstores.
Before starting light therapy, consider a few caveats. For one, your insurance may not pay for the devices or may require a doctor's note to do so. Also, some medical conditions make light therapy risky, so ask your doctor before you start. In addition, you should watch for side effects such as headache or mild nausea, though these are pretty rare and often are resolved by reducing the dose. Finally, light boxes aren't regulated by the FDA, so be careful about what you buy. Look for a light box that...
Provides 10,000 lux (the measurement used to indicate the device's intensity) of white light at a comfortable distance
Gives off very little unhealthy ultraviolet light
Protects your eyes by projecting light from above
Is large enough to keep your eyes in its range even if you move your head
If you want an alternative or supplement to a light box, you might consider a dawn simulator. This device gives off an increasingly bright light that gently wakes you and, experts believe, helps reset your off-kilter internal clock. Medicine
Many people with SAD find antidepressants quite helpful in lifting mood and decreasing other symptoms. In fact, some feel better after just a few weeks. If you don't, your doctor may recommend sticking with it longer or trying a different antidepressant instead. Like any medicine, antidepressants can cause side effects. Let your doctor know if you develop any problems. Let's Talk: Psychotherapy
Talking with a therapist can be a helpful addition to light treatments or antidepressants. You might ask your therapist to check out recent research on cognitive behavioral therapy for SAD. This form of therapy specifically addresses the negative thoughts and behaviors that can make you feel worse in winter. If you're concerned that seeing a therapist is a sign of weakness, consider that it actually can be a sign of strength to take steps toward getting your life back on track. Negative Air Ionizers and Positive Mood
Although they may sound like some piece of intergalactic gadgetry, negative air ionizers may be a promising new way to treat SAD. These small devices produce a quiet stream of microscopic particles similar to those found near crashing waves and after thunderstorms. (Don't try to create the effect with a home air filter; most of them don't emit enough ions.) Experts don't fully understand the phenomenon, but some recent studies show it helps, and so far, the devices seem to have no side effects. Melatonin
People hoping to reset their internal clocks sometimes take melatonin, a hormone that affects our sleep cycle. Although a recent study indicates that melatonin taken in the evening may have the desired effect, experts caution people about treating themselves with melatonin supplements. For one, they believe more research is necessary to pinpoint when and how to take the pills. In addition, the FDA doesn't regulate supplements, so it can be hard to know if the bottle you buy contains what it says. More Ways to Wellness
There are some fairly low-tech, inexpensive ways you can promote your own well-being. For starters, try sticking to a routine of aerobic exercise, which can get feel-good hormones pumping throughout your body. Exercise also can help cut down on any SAD-related weight gain, as can watching what you eat.
You can also help protect your mood by connecting with people who care about you and by pursuing enjoyable or meaningful activities. It can be hard to begin such self-care steps when you're not feeling well, so you might start early or just choose a few very manageable goals. And don't forget to acknowledge yourself even for small victories as you work toward a life of more sunny days.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, seek help immediately. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center or dial 911.
Content courtesy of Mental Health America, the country's leading non-profit dedicated to helping all people lead mentally healthier lives.
Reviewed by Michael Terman, Ph.D., Columbia University Medical Center