Akst: Coping with seasonal affective disorder
I’ve avoided this week’s topic for nearly two years, but I can’t put it off any longer.
We have to talk about the weather.
In a week that featured local schools and Northern Illinois University closing two days in a row (because of weather) for the first time in recent memory and news reports Tuesday saying that after 36 hours, the temperature had climbed to zero … well, we have an ugly situation.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fall/winter guy. I like the winters here. But winter wonderland lost a lot of luster this week. Polar vortexes. Ice tsunamis. Wind chills dozens of degrees below zero. Several deaths in the area. Car crashes, travel disruption, broken water pipes and other mechanical malfunctions beyond measure.
It can get to be too much, especially if you’re already battling a form of clinical depression known as seasonal affective disorder.
It seems appropriate to mention SAD now because even though we seem to have survived the worst of the cold, as of Wednesday evening, freezing rain and more snow had been predicted for the weekend.
Isn’t it reassuring that you can count on me for uplifting commentary?
SAD affects nearly half a million people every winter between September and April, peaking in December, January and February, according to Mental Health America, a national advocacy organization. Most sufferers are women, and the major onset tends to happen between ages 18 and 30.
The “Winter Blues,” a milder form of SAD, may affect even more people, MHA says.
Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal (in his book, “Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder,”) said the prevalence of SAD is much higher, affecting about 14 million Americans.
Regardless, SAD is real. It’s not just you (or me) whining.
Symptoms include depression, anxiety, significant mood changes, sleep problems, lethargy, overeating (especially including craving starchy and sweet foods), irritability, wanting to avoid people and social situations, and even sexual problems.
SAD symptoms tend to stem from daily body rhythms that have gone out of sync with the sun, according to one study by the National Institute of Mental Health. Exposure to bright light early in the morning and a low dose of the light-sensitive hormone melatonin can help, the study found.
Exposure to bright light at the right time is particularly helpful, according to Psych Central, an online mental health social network. Light boxes, which emit artificial light, mimic the sun’s rays. They’re easy to find and are reasonably priced. Depending on the intensity, you might need to use one between 30 minutes and two hours a day, but as long as your eyes are open and you’re an appropriate distance from the light, you can read, talk on the phone, work on a computer, etc.
Not that I have a license to practice, but I would also “prescribe” peppermint tea, some exercise, pets, prayer/meditation, and funny/uplifting media content.
Experts do agree on one thing: if the blues get too dark, ask for help. Now.
• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, www.ninaonline.org. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).