Feeling gloomy during fall and winter? It could be seasonal affective disorder
photo by: Kathy Hanks
Kate Gramlich flipped the switch on the tabletop lamp, and the dreary fall day outside the window seemed to disappear.
Gramlich, an information services assistant with the Lawrence Public Library, was demonstrating one of the lamps the library provides for light therapy. The lamp mimics outdoor light and helps lift the mood for those experiencing seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a depressive disorder that begins in late fall and early winter and goes away when days become brighter and warmer.
About 10 million Americans are affected by SAD, according to Psychology Today. The condition is four times as common in women as it is in men, and it occurs more frequently in younger people.
While she experiences depression year-round, Gramlich says it’s different this time of year.
“At 7 p.m., you’re asleep. It’s hard to go to work, and eating is more of a chore,” Gramlich said.
Gramlich said that in the winter, it’s dark when most people get home from work, which makes it seem later than it really is. Plus, most nights it’s too cold to spend time outdoors, she said.
“Some people think of it as the winter blues,” said Jenny Brewer, an adult outpatient therapist and program manager at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.
However, she suggests not brushing off the symptoms that easily, especially if it’s affecting your ability to function. Symptoms may include low energy; oversleeping; craving foods high in carbohydrates; and feeling sluggish, agitated or depressed.
Brewer suggested some steps people can take to improve their mental health in the winter.
“Therapy is very helpful, and some people may need antidepressants,” Brewer said. “But it comes back to the lifestyle components of eating well and exercising. We fall off the wagon in winter.”
Brewer likened it to a bear in winter — conserving energy and hibernating.
“But, that’s not what we do to feel good, functional and whole,” she said.
Brewer said there are many people who experience milder emotional changes in fall and winter and don’t need clinical help. But she said if you feel out of sorts for days and can’t get motivated, or if you’re missing work or school, you should seek treatment.
Treatment for SAD may include light therapy, medication or psychotherapy.
Gramlich’s doctor recommended that she use the SAD lamp for light therapy, which she does for up to 30 minutes every morning. The light is thought to affect chemicals in the brain, and Gramlich said her mood is elevated when she uses the lamp.
Several years ago, Gramlich and a colleague at the library discovered that they both used light therapy. They looked into making SAD lamps available at the library so people who might not be able to afford a lamp could still access them.
In 2016, the library purchased its first four lamps. It also held “light reading” in the auditorium, providing SAD lamps, comfortable chairs and workspaces. In 2017, the library added four more lamps, and it started allowing patrons to check out the new lamps and take them home for two weeks at a time.
The number of lamps available for checkout has since grown to 15. All of them are currently checked out, and there are five people on the waiting list.
While people can try out a lamp at the library, Gramlich said the library does not provide medical advice. People who believe they’re suffering from SAD should seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider, she said.