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It's that SAD time of year

Season affective disorder doesn't get the best of Lake Park woman Shannon Nava anymore, as she turned to psychotherapy to battle the disorder that was stealing the joy out of her life every fall and winter. Photo by - Brian Basham1 / 2
Lightboxes, like this lamp, are often a preferred method of treatment for SAD, as it essentially fakes the body into thinking it is summertime. Experts say it helps 80 percent of SAD sufferers, completely eliminating symptoms in about 40 to 50 percent of them. Photo by - Brian Basham2 / 2

Shannon Nava remembers a time seven years ago when she didn't get out of bed for an entire month.

"I was just so tired," she said, "I didn't want to go anywhere, including work."

But Nava soon had no work to go to, as she lost job after job. Depression had set in, and it had set in hard. "I knew something was wrong, and so I went to go see a therapist about it," she said.

Because Nava pulled out of this powerful funk in the early spring and summer, she was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a type of depression that creeps in just as the daylight hours creep out.

According to experts, it can begin as early as late August and go all winter long.

"We don't know why exactly," said Dr. Morris Hund, a psychiatrist for Sanford Health in Detroit Lakes, "We know the changes in the duration of daylight changes our circadian rhythm in our body -- our internal clock -- it's also thought that certain neurotransmitters in the brain such as serotonin decrease. Or it's also thought that the change of daylight effects melatonin, which affects your mood and sleep, but there's no definite answer."

And while there's no definite physiological cause for the mood altering, energy-zapping disorder, the negative effects it can have on an individual's life can range from being inconvenient to being downright debilitating.

"It's more than just your typical winter blues ... it's more severe and can actually affect daily function," said Hund, who says the disorder is much more prevalent in the northern climates.

"A person may feel more depressed, more need for sleep, increase in appetite -- especially for more carbohydrates; they may be more irritable, sad, anxious and have low amounts of energy."

SAD sufferers may find themselves gaining weight during the winter, withdrawing from social activities and even experiencing anxiety or difficulty in concentrating.

There may even be a heavy "leaden" felling in the arms and legs, according to information from the Mayo Clinic.

So what can be done to combat this dark, dreary disorder?

Light boxes

Light boxes are lamps specifically designed to battle SAD, as it projects intense florescent light directly onto the face, specifically the eyes.

"It fakes out the body to some degree that this is more summertime hours versus wintertime hours," said Hund, who says the lamps are unlike other light sources in that they shine with 10,000 lux, or units of light.

"I like to see people use them early in the morning, even when it's still dark, about 20-30 minutes a day," said Hund, adding that the lamps have to be used at the right distance according to the brand of the lightbox.

"I see this where people don't use them right because they'll only use them a couple times a week or not at the right distance," said Hund, who says if used correctly, they benefit about 80 percent of users, completely wiping out symptoms for 40-50 percent.


For some, a light regimen proves too inconvenient, as was the case for Nava, who tried medication.

Anti-depressants are also often used to combat SAD, "which can be very effective, but takes three to five weeks to kick in," according to Hund, who says people who already suffer from depression year-round can see a double dose of depression in the winter.

"So if they're already on an anti-depressant, we can just up that dose during these months," said Hund.

He also adds that while vitamin D is not necessarily an actual treatment for SAD, it has been known to help with depression.


Medication didn't work for Nava either, as she experienced side effects that she says "made things even worse" because she then felt hopeless. "But I wouldn't have wanted to be on medication my whole life anyway," said Nava, who then turned to an all-day psychotherapy program in Fargo that lasted a couple of weeks.

"They basically gave me coping skills to deal with this," said Nava, who learned how to block out negative thoughts and whose husband learned how to distract her when she began feeling low.

She also got an elliptical and began exercising. "And I learned how to detect the signs and symptoms before they became too bad," she said, "and then I push myself to get up and do something ... to not let myself take a nap ... to go outside..."

Looking back, Nava says she knows she probably suffered from SAD when she was younger, but her busy teenage life kept her active, and therefore its effects were minimal. "But when I started staying at home with my kids, I didn't leave the house as much, and that's when it got really bad," she said.

That rationale makes sense to Hund, who says being outside can do wonders for SAD.

"Even if it's a cloudy day, the light of a cloudy day is still more intense than even a lightbox," said Hund, who says he often recommends a combination of things to somebody with SAD, depending on their needs.

"But you have to do the work," said Nava, who also got her family involved and educated on the matter.

"Knowing myself and others knowing what to look for and being open to their concerns and being willing to get up and do something versus laying around in my depression are most important for me," said Nava.