Beat the Blues! How Adults with ADHD Can Recognize and Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Here in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley, we had record-breaking high temperatures over the Labor Day weekend. The days that followed were hot and humid. Friends and neighbors started to complain that they were ready for fall. “Not me,” I replied. “I’ll miss the sunlight!”

Just one week later, there was no denying that fall had unofficially arrived. My Facebook feed was full of posts cheering on the cool weather, the changing leaves, and the pumpkin lattes. Don’t get me wrong, I like a pumpkin latte just as much as anyone, but I start to feel a little sad when summer melts into fall. That’s because I know just how much I am affected by the changing of the seasons, and how easy it is for my mood to fade along with the sunlight.

As an adult with ADHD, you may have noticed that you tend to be a bit more sensitive than those around you. Tags in clothing may drive you crazy, or you may be more likely to cry during a touching movie, or you may notice little things that others don’t. The neurological systems of people with ADHD appear to be highly sensitive and things can affect us differently. We are especially sensitive to change and transitions. So it’s easy to see how a change in the duration and intensity of sunlight is sure to have an affect, as is colder weather.

A psychiatrist once told me that the majority of ADHD adults she treats are significantly affected by the changing of the seasons, and that many have SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder. Ten years ago, I would have told you that I get “the winter blues” and tend to feel a little down and gloomy in the cold months. But somewhere in my 30s, the winter blues became full-blown SAD.

If you suffer from SAD, or even just the winter blues, then you likely have a difficult time in the fall and winter months. In addition to your usual ADHD symptoms and challenges, you may find that:

  • Your circadian rhythm (your internal clock) becomes disrupted, and you have a more difficult time falling asleep or waking up;
  • You feel sluggish throughout the day;
  • It’s harder than ever to find motivation and be productive day-to-day;
  • You withdraw from social events and activities, and become more of a homebody;
  • You feel unhappy, irritable, depressed, anxious, and/or hopeless.

There is no doubt that many of you are reading this and sighing, nodding your heads in agreement. But before I drag you down with dread, I want to lift you up by offering some hope: You can beat the winter blues. You can even effectively manage Seasonal Affective Disorder. And the really good news for adults with ADHD is that treatment can actually be pretty simple!

Light Therapy Is Considered the First-line Treatment for SAD

Light therapy has made a real difference for me, and for a number of my coaching clients, as well. It is the most widely used treatment for SAD and is easy to incorporate into your day. According to the National Institute of Health:

Studies have shown that light therapy relieves SAD symptoms for as much as 70% of patients after a few weeks of treatment. Some improvement can be detected even sooner. “Our research has found that patients report an improvement in depression scores after even the first administration of light, says Dr. Teodor Postolache, who treats anxiety and mood disorders at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/issue/Jan2013/feature1

Light therapy is intended to mimic the intense sunlight that we enjoy in spring and summer. You simply position a special light box in front of your face (with open eyes) for about 30-60 minutes a day. I set up my light box on my desk while I’m working, and on the weekends I sit in front of it while I have my morning coffee.

Light therapy for SAD requires the purchase of a 10,000 LUX light box, which you can find online. Two companies I recommend are Northern Light Technologies and Verilux. The options from Northern Light Technologies are more expensive, but built to last. Verilux offers less expensive products (around $100) and a larger selection, but may need replacement bulbs more frequently. Just remember that 10,000 LUX is considered the therapeutic level for treating SAD.

In addition to your investment in a light box, there are a few other things to consider before beginning light therapy:

  • Light therapy is most effective when it is started in the fall, no later than October. However, some doctors recommend beginning light therapy in September, which is what I do.
  • You need to start slow! It’s very important to read the directions that come with your light, and follow the recommendations for use. It can take a few weeks before you’re ready to use your light for a full 30 or 60 minutes. If you rush it, then you may experience headaches. Trust me, don’t rush it.
  • It’s important to discuss light therapy with your doctor–especially if you take medication for ADHD, depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition. Your prescriber needs to know if you’re considering using light therapy, and needs the opportunity to object if there is a good reason that you should not be using it.
  • Light therapy can cause mania in people with bipolar disorder, so do not begin light therapy if you’ve been diagnosed with the condition. Rather, talk to your doctor about alternatives.

In addition to (or instead of) light therapy, there are a few other options you may want to consider to beat SAD or the winter blues:

  • Talk to your doctor about starting or increasing antidepressants during the fall and winter months. This is a decision that needs to be made in partnership with your prescriber. Please don’t adjust your medication on your own.
  • Supplement with Vitamin D. Depression, along with a host of other medical conditions, has been linked to Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is synthesized from sunlight, and is also available in some fortified foods. Dr. Michael Holick, who is considered the leading authority on Vitamin D deficiency, estimates that as much as 50% of the population is deficient! A quick and easy blood test ordered by your doctor can tell you if you’re Vitamin D deficient, but it may be unnecessary. When I interviewed Dr. Holick at a health conference a few years back, he recommended that everyone who lives north of Atlanta, GA, supplement Vitamin D from September to May. You can visit Dr. Holick’s website for more information about Vitamin D, and recommended supplementation.
  • Exercise every day, even if it’s just for a short time. Exercise reduces stress and improves mood. It increases oxygen to the brain, which in turn helps the brain function better. Thirty minutes of moderate intensity exercise per day is ideal, and you can accomplish that just by walking at a bit quicker than usual at a steady pace. However, every little bit helps. So if you’re really feeling down and can’t push yourself to make it to 30 minutes, then aim for just 10.

The winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder don’t have to slow you down this year. Begin treating it now and you’ll likely find that 2016 is your best winter yet!

Jennifer Koretsky is a Senior Certified ADHD Coach and the author of Odd One Out: The Maverick’s Guide to Adult ADD. For more helpful information on ADHD and related topics, visit www.ADHDmanagement.com.

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    1. Reply

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