The short, dark, cold days of winter can make spring seem light years away. No wonder depression, anger, irritability and overeating all peak during the months ahead. The culprit, experts say, is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and its milder form—"the winter blues." "We're not sure what causes seasonal depression," says University of Toronto psychiatrist Anthony Levitt, MD, "but we do know that people with SAD have body clocks that don't adapt well to reduced sunlight—and as a result, they feel jet-lagged all winter." Fortunately, you can stop SAD in its tracks—and even before it starts—just by adopting some simple strategies.
Use good scents.
People who suffer from SAD have a more acute sense of smell than most other folks, according to a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health. "They appear to be more sensitive to unpleasant odors—such as the smell of urine or mothballs—which can trigger a bout of moodiness, depression or even aggression," says Alan Hirsch, MD, founder of Chicago's Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation and the author of several books on scent such as Life's a Smelling Success. To counteract the odiferous assault, try replacing bad scents with those that put you in a good mood—be it the smell of flowers, baby powder, or baked goods.
Head outdoors on sunny winter days.
Even if it's just for a short walk at lunch time, get outside. The extra sunlight and exercise improve sleep (by helping to increase the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin at night), and elevate your sagging mood (by boosting levels of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, which is depleted in SAD sufferers).
Score the window seat.
Getting more light into your life, especially in the early morning, is the key to curbing SAD symptoms. So eat breakfast or take a morning coffee break near a sunny window, since indirect light counts, too. Also, try switching from incandescent to fluorescent lights (used in the light boxes prescribed to treat SAD); they're brighter and don't produce as much glare, says Dr. Levitt.
Fight SAD while you sleep.
Columbia University researchers found that people who got artificial light in the morning were twice as likely to beat SAD as those who got late-day light. The standard treatment for SAD is to sit in front of a 10,000-lux fluorescent lightbox for 30 minutes each morning. If you crave convenience, try using a dawn simulator lightbox--it goes on before you wake up and gradually brightens the room and exposes you to light through your closed eyelids. By the way, if you try bright light therapy this winter: (A) make sure to get a unit that is specifically designed to treat SAD; (B) give it one to four weeks to work; and (C) don't stop the therapy before spring arrives or your symptoms will return.
Ask your doctor for a prescription.
If light fixes fail, talk to your doctor. Serotonin-boosting antidepressants such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft can ease symptoms within two to four weeks. "The majority of people with SAD start taking antidepressants in the fall and end in the spring," says Dr. Levitt, "but some people with long-lasting symptoms need them year-round."