It’s important to note that many studies related to treatment for SAD have limitations, and there are very few studies that compare multiple types of treatments head-to-head to see which one might be best.
SAD typically lifts when seasons change, but in some cases certain treatment options may lessen its symptoms more quickly.
Psychotherapy (aka “talk therapy”) can help you explore your feelings and figure out how to cope. If you are able to identify your SAD triggers, Duckworth says, you may be able to avoid some of them.
One common form of therapy used to treat SAD is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), according to Mayo Clinic. In CBT, a mental health professional can help you learn to identify and change unhelpful thoughts or behavioral patterns, as well as ways to better manage stress.
A medical professional can also prescribe antidepressants if necessary. A class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a group that includes Prozac (fluoxetine), has been shown to be effective in treating SAD, London says, as has Wellbutrin and other brands of bupropion.
Bright Light Therapy
Unlike other forms of depression, SAD can be treated with light therapy, consisting of regular daily exposure to a light box that simulates high-intensity sunlight. Light therapy is a first-line treatment for SAD that begins in the fall, according to Mayo Clinic.
You don’t need a prescription to buy a light box; you may even find out that your doctor’s office has one you can borrow. “Give it a try for a week and see if it works for you,” says Ani Kalayjian, EdD, an adjunct professor of psychology at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College in New York City, who specializes in traumatic stress.
The best time to use light therapy is in the morning. “Sit in front of the box in the morning before going to work and give yourself some sunshine,” Duckworth suggests.
Light therapy typically takes about 30 minutes a day, and treatment usually continues on a daily basis from the time of year that symptoms begin — such as in the fall — and lasts throughout the winter months, Dr. London says.
Light therapy typically has very few side effects, according to Mayo Clinic. Side effects may include eye strain and headaches, but they’re typically uncommon and mild, according to Harvard Medical School. A word of caution: Do not use tanning beds as a treatment for SAD, because they use ultraviolet rays that can be harmful to your eyes and skin.
If you have severe depression or bipolar disorder, be sure to talk to your doctor before trying light therapy. Rarely, light therapy may trigger a manic episode for some people with bipolar disorder, according to Harvard Medical School.
Dawn simulators, which gradually increase the light in your bedroom during your last 30 minutes of sleep, can also help. In a study published in July 2015 in the Journal of Affective Disorders, Russian researchers found that dawn simulators were as effective for people with mild SAD as light therapy.
If you don’t want to buy either a light box or a dawn simulator, take advantage of natural sunlight and go outside for at least 20 minutes, Duckworth says. Also sit near the window when you’re inside, and open the blinds or curtains to let in as much sunshine as possible.
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Duckworth recommends a variety of ways to combat this condition.
- Take care of your general health. Regular exercise, healthy eating, and stabilizing your sleep patterns by going to bed and waking up at the same times each day may offer some relief.
- Maintain relationships with friends and family. Try to stay connected with people you enjoy being around, which can help you feel better, according to Mayo Clinic.
- Don’t self-medicate. Because SAD usually develops during the winter months, when holiday festivities are in full force, self-medication with alcohol or drugs can become problematic for some people. “Alcohol use tends to go up in the winter as people attend more parties,” Duckworth says. “But if you’re using alcohol or drugs to change the depressed way you feel this time of year, it’s probably compounding your problems as opposed to helping them.”
- Consider taking a trip, if possible. If you have the means, taking a trip to a sunnier spot could do a lot of good for you. “Go to Florida or the Bahamas — someplace south with a lot of sun,” Duckworth suggests. “If you can take a vacation to a sunny climate, it will likely help.”
Keep in mind that it may take a combination of approaches to manage SAD.
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There’s currently no way to prevent SAD, according to Mayo Clinic. But getting diagnosed and treated for SAD early on can help prevent your symptoms from worsening over time.
Knowing what time of year your SAD symptoms typically begin can be helpful, especially if you prefer to get a jumpstart on treatment before your symptoms usually happen each year, per Mayo Clinic. For instance, some people with winter-pattern SAD prefer to begin their treatment in the fall and continue treatment past when their symptoms usually lift. For others, continuing treatment year-round is helpful for heading off symptoms.