Lifestyle

12/7/2022 | By Donna Brody

Do wintertime and cold weather get you down? There’s a name for that – Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. There’s also an app for that, along with other technology and lifestyle adjustments that can help combat SAD.

Even when life is going well, it’s common to become stressed, anxious, and even depressed as days grow shorter and colder. Some people, already facing a lonely or isolated holiday period – maybe the first since the loss of a loved one or a move away from family – are likely to see a melancholy mood intensify with the onset of late fall and winter. This form of depression has a name: Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short.

“Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that primarily affects people during the fall and winter months when there is less daylight, particularly in locations farther from the equator,” says William B. Leasure, M.D., a clinical psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic. “Symptoms may include feeling sad, angry, or easily irritable most of the day nearly every day; lack of interest in activities once enjoyed; difficulty concentrating; persistent tiredness; lack of energy; and, in some cases, feeling that life isn’t worth living or having suicidal thoughts.”

SAD and senior adults

This mental health disorder has been recognized and researched for many years. “SAD affects an estimated 10 million Americans, with women four times more likely to be diagnosed with it than men,” according to the Boston University website.

And, says Melanie Donahue, LCSW, founder of Blue Moon Senior Counseling, “Older adults are just as likely to experience SAD as younger adults, and they may even be more at risk. At any time of year, older adults are more likely than younger adults to struggle with isolation and loneliness.”

Donahue adds that limited mobility or health issues may make it harder for seniors to participate in activities they once enjoyed. Winter can add another complication, she says, because cold, snowy, or icy weather can be more dangerous for older adults.

SAD can make a person may feel more tired and sleep more than usual. They crave and eat more carbohydrates, which can cause unwanted weight gain during the colder months. These symptoms can get worse as the winter progresses, especially with a lack of exercise.

Related: Helping aging loved ones combat seasonal depression

Simple DIY ways to combat SAD

A smiling man in winter, talking a walk outside in sunlight and fresh air. Image by Denise P Lett. Lifestyle adjustments and new technology can help to combat SAD, aka seasonal affective disorder, or melancholy from winter darkness.

There is good news. Progress has been made in recent years to treat the disorder with new therapies and technology.

Self-care steps can help combat SAD. These include getting regular exercise, maintaining healthy sleep with a predictable sleep/wake cycle, eating a nutritious diet, and limiting the amount of sugary foods consumed. Since vitamin D deficiency has been identified as a possible cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder in the elderly, going outside on sunny days can make a difference. “When the sun reflects off the snowy ground, clear days can be brilliantly bright,” says Dr. Leasure. “Exposure to that natural sunlight can help ease symptoms.”

Technology to help combat SAD

If it’s not possible to go outdoors, one long-standing treatment for SAD is the use of a full-spectrum light box. According to Harvard University scientists, “Light therapy can help restore normal circadian rhythms that have been disrupted … and combat seasonal symptoms.” These boxes are about 100 times brighter than normal indoor lighting, so users are instructed to use for only about 30 minutes a day, sitting close to the light but not looking directly at it. The price of a light box can range from around $30 to $250.

A variation of a light box is a dawn simulator, a device that gradually illuminates a sleeper’s environment prior to waking up. Some simulators can also be programmed to decrease light 30 minutes before bedtime, further assisting natural circadian rhythms.

Another potentially useful item, an electrical ionizer, can improve indoor air quality. Since some research indicates that ionizers may clean the air, they have become more popular since the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, they may help to improve mood, decrease stress, and improve sleep patterns.

In today’s world there are apps for everything, including some that can help combat the blues. These include meditation, workout, and nutrition apps as well as therapy apps.

Related: Top 10 natural mood boosters, any time of year

“Therapy assistance apps can take many forms; some walk you through reading exercises; others encourage you to log your moods and thoughts. In contrast, others let you interact directly with a therapist,” reports the website Proto.io.

A variety of therapy apps are available for purchase starting at monthly fees of $8 to around $75 a month. In some cases these apps can be linked to fitness trackers that consumers might already be using to track food, sleep patterns, exercise, etc. That data, along with surveys and mood trackers, can be used to improve mental health.

Other apps concentrate on games or activities designed to allow the user to lift their mood by just having fun.

One important recommendation to combat SAD can involve apps, but the good old-fashioned form is even more effective. “Regular social interaction is incredibly helpful for mental health, too,” says Donahue. “Even though it may feel difficult to be social during the cold, dark, and gloomy weather, spending time with family and friends can make a big difference in your emotional state.”

Donna Brody

Donna Brody is a former community college English instructor who retired to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She enjoys freelance writing and has self published three romance novels. Besides writing and traveling with her husband, she keeps busy visiting her seven grandchildren.