Tagged Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Planting, ‘Plogging’ and Sunsets: How to Enjoy That Extra Hour of Daylight

Planting, ‘Plogging’ and Sunsets: How to Enjoy That Extra Hour of Daylight

“Spring ahead” will come as an even bigger relief than usual after a year of lockdown.

Credit…Sally Deng

  • March 11, 2021, 1:20 p.m. ET

With the first anniversary of lockdown fast approaching, I thought I’d been through every possible pandemic milestone. As the months rolled by, I’d checked them off like squares on a Bingo card: First pandemic birthday, first pandemic holiday, first pandemic panic attack in an empty toilet paper aisle at Target.

But while the country was collectively mired in the coronavirus crisis when we turned the clocks back last November, there’s one pandemic milestone we haven’t fully experienced together yet: Turning them forward.

Last year, daylight saving time began on March 8, three days before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. This year, as case counts fall and vaccinations rise, there’s not just a metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel, but a literal one too. And it starts on Sunday, March 14, when “springing forward” nets us an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day.

Get ready for a little light relief

“Putting the clocks forward feels like a turning point every year, but I think this year, a lot of people are particularly excited about the longer evenings and the extra sunlight,” said Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. In the 1980s, Dr. Rosenthal first described and named Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD — a type of depression that most commonly occurs in the fall and winter months — and pioneered light therapy for its treatment.

While the disorder affects an estimated 6 percent of people in the United States, with another 14 percent experiencing a milder variant known as the winter blues, “it’s been a hard winter for many people, even if they don’t have SAD,” said Dr. Rosenthal. “People have felt cooped up, like they’ve had to crawl back into their burrows.”

Now, though, we can crawl back out — and reap the benefits. Exposure to light can increase energy levels and set internal circadian clocks to regulate sleep and waking, said Dr. Rosenthal. It can also be a powerful mood booster.

“Light can cause a shift in your emotional state because it’s a stimulant,” he said. “It stimulates receptors in the eye, which send signals back to regions of the brain that regulate emotional responses, possibly by increasing serotonin transmission. We know serotonin to be a powerful chemical in regulating mood.”

The extra hour at the end of the day is especially welcome, given the light deprivation that many suffer during the winter, said Dr. Rosenthal.

“If you’re thirsty in the desert and someone gives you water, your tongue is so sensitive to the sensation of drinking it that it feels amazing,” he said. “For a person who’s been deprived of light for months, there’s a similar effect: All of a sudden the light starts increasing really quickly and you get this bonus hour of it at the end of the day.”

‘Longer evenings, warmer weather’

That bonus hour doesn’t just mean more light — it means longer evenings, warmer weather and the ability to do more outdoors. That may feel particularly resonant this year, said Dr. Rosenthal, because the past winter deprived us not just of sunlight, but of our general sense of normalcy.

“It’s not only light that’s been lacking, but all joys of contact with others,” he said. “An extra hour is thrilling in itself, but now we can use it to safely do things we haven’t been able to do for the last few months of the pandemic, like socialize outdoors with friends.”

Exhilaration about the prospect of longer, lighter days may also stem from the fact that we’re turning the page from winter to spring during a time when news about the virus feels cautiously optimistic, said Dr. Rosenthal.

“It’s a wonderful mix of chemistry, circumstance and hope,” he said. “Hope was hard to find a few months ago, but now it feels abundant.”

Of course, while the extra light can be invigorating, the pandemic is not over yet and this isn’t the time to let down your guard. Adjusting to the shift in your sleep schedule may make you a little more distractible, said Amy R. Wolfson, a professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland and an expert in adolescent sleep. “Don’t take any risks or make changes to the safety procedures you’re following,” she said. “Keep wearing a mask and social distancing.”

Luckily, there are a host of pandemic-friendly ways to enjoy the bonus hour of light coming your way — and none of them involve Zoom.

Try a new exercise outdoors

Exercise, often used as a tool in treating SAD, can give you a double dose of elation if you do it outside, said Dr. Rosenthal.

Lean into spring’s spirit of new beginnings and try something different, said Kerri Anne Stebbins, co-founder of Endless Trails, a nonprofit that works to preserve wild spaces. “It’s always fun to rediscover childhood activities in adulthood,” she said. “My 37-year-old sister just got back into rollerblading.”

If you always had a flair for the balance beam, try slacklining, a grown-up equivalent where you walk, run or even do yoga across a suspended length of nylon webbing.

Get out on the water (if there’s some nearby)

Longer days lend themselves well to paddle sports, which typically come with time-consuming setups and breakdowns, said Rue Mapp, founder and chief executive of Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit that seeks to celebrate and inspire Black American connections to the outdoors.

“Find a city park or reservoir that rents canoes or kayaks,” she said. But remember to pace yourself if you haven’t been exercising regularly. “In a prepandemic year, you’d have jumped right back in to outdoor activity,” she said. “This year, gyms have been closed and many people have been less active. You might need more time to reacclimate.”

Practice ‘plogging’

For an evening run with a side of philanthropy, gather a few friends for a socially distanced foray into “plogging,” a Swedish fitness craze whose wacky moniker — a portmanteau of “jogging” and “plocka upp,” Swedish for “to pick up” — belies its wholesome mission: literally just picking up garbage while jogging.

“We join a local litter patrol every year once the snow starts melting,” said Ms. Stebbins. “I’m always surprised how much trash piles up in the winter.”

Revive the humble evening walk

There’s a reason it was such a classic during the early days of the pandemic. Walking, particularly walking while paying attention to the wonders around you, can have myriad benefits for your physical and mental health.

“Sure, you can go forest bathing or do barefoot grounding exercises or jump rope down the street — all fun and effective, by the way — but there’s so much power in a simple after-dinner walk,” said Sadie Chanlett-Avery, a yoga instructor and holistic fitness trainer based in Asheville, N.C., who runs yoga and mindfulness retreats. “It’s a great way to remind yourself of your place in the changing seasons. Notice the daffodils blooming. Tap into that growth and new life and hope.”

Bring extra awareness to your body by adding a simple yoga move as you walk, particularly if you’re with a kid who needs to get a few more wiggles out. “Raise your arms above your head a few times, snow-angel-style, to lift your chest and open up the sides of your ribs,” she said. “We all need to flap our wings a bit.”

Cook dinner over an open flame

The days may be getting longer, but summer weather is still a ways off. If you have outdoor space, “merging your camping gear with your patio can shift how you think about enjoying the outdoors, even this early in the season,” said Liz Fischer, the owner of Pasadena Outdoor Education, a company in Pasadena, Calif., that provides wilderness medicine education and CPR training. “Break out your Coleman stove and cook dinner with your camping supplies. When the weather warms, you’ll have gained new skills to make a real camping trip run more smoothly.”

Stream a movie outside

Borrow or rent a small portable projector and host a driveway movie night at dusk, said Ms. Fischer. The longer evening will give you more time to set up snacks or play a trailer or two before night falls.

Get your hands in the dirt

Plant something (“anything!” said Ms. Stebbins) and then “take it to a local assisted living facility to brighten up the rooms of people who aren’t able to get outside.”

Watch the sun set

For now, celebrate your extra hour with a pleasure both simple and sublime. “Work and school and dinner prep can make it a tricky proposition during the winter months,” said Ms. Stebbins. “But as soon as the days start getting longer, make the time to go outside and watch the sun sink below the horizon.”

Holly Burns is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

How to Recognize and Address Seasonal Depression

How to Recognize and Address Seasonal Depression

Despair in the winter months can point to a serious condition. Experts recommend light boxes, earlier wake-up times and therapy.

Credit…Pablo Amargo

  • Feb. 5, 2021, 2:38 p.m. ET

Seeing friends was normally the highlight of Kendra Sands’ week. One night in January 2018, she had plans to meet two for dinner, but instead, Ms. Sands, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., crawled into bed. She wanted to go out, but she was stuck in a dark room, sobbing.

“I forced myself to put on different clothes, touch up my makeup and get in the car,” she said. “But driving to the restaurant, I realized hibernating in bed had been a pattern for weeks.”

Sands initially blamed PMS for the crying episodes, but after a month she still had no relief. After asking about her mental health pattern in previous years, Ms. Sands’ therapist eventually diagnosed her with seasonal affective disorder. “I knew I didn’t like the cold or dreariness of winter, but I never thought I had a form of depression,” Ms. Sands said.

According to Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation and practice directorate at the American Psychological Association, seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.) is a type of major depression. What makes S.A.D. unique is its timing: “It has a distinct seasonal onset, typically in winter, and a spontaneous remission of symptoms,” she said.

S.A.D. patients experience classic depression symptoms: sadness, irritability, trouble concentrating, lack of interest in activities and increased sleep and appetite. It doesn’t have to be cold or snowy, people can experience S.A.D. in sunny climates like Florida or Southern California.

“The important consideration for all forms of S.A.D. is the effect of your surroundings,” said Dr. Amit Etkin, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. “The light you experience, how you interact with the world when you get up, and when you go to bed all have a disproportionate effect on your mood.”

Recognize S.A.D. in yourself.

Michael Terman, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and founder of the Center for Environmental Therapeutics, said it’s common to gain weight and feel lethargic in winter, but only around three percent of the population has S.A.D.

To be diagnosed, you need to experience at least five of nine clinical symptoms for at least two weeks, said Paul Desan, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. If you don’t, you could have subsyndromal S.A.D., a milder version Dr. Desan said people often call “winter blues.”

A distinct, seasonal pattern is key to recognizing S.A.D., feeling normal during spring and summer, then dwindling in energy and mood as days get shorter — almost like you want to hibernate. If you have a family member with S.A.D., you might be more likely to develop it, and Dr. Desan said the disorder is three times more common in women.

According to Dr. Terman, S.A.D. prevalence increases as you move north, until you hit 38 degrees (around Washington D.C.). Anywhere farther north is essentially equally affected at maximum severity. The likelihood also rises near the western edges of time zones, where dawn occurs later.

Experts agree it’s important to treat S.A.D. if you think you may have it. Here are some of the most common treatment methods they recommend.

Start with simple changes.

Many forms of depression, Dr. Wright said, benefit from changes to sleep schedule, a nutritious diet, exercise and social interaction. If you have S.A.D., put a winter spin on these behaviors.

For example, even if you want to sleep later, set an alarm each day so you can experience early-morning sunshine, which helps with S.A.D. symptoms. “Engaging actively in the world, as if you already had those rhythms, is a good way to help reset your circadian rhythm,” Dr. Etkin said.

What you do at night matters, too. Dr. Etkin suggests basic sleep hygiene like avoiding screens (and any artificial light). Try to keep your bedtime consistent — not too late — and avoid too much caffeine or alcohol, which can interfere with your quality of rest and ability to get up.

Try a light box.

Light activates a bodily signal that informs your cells what time of day it is. Morning light causes cortisol to spike, giving you energy. The time of that initial spike determines when your brain releases melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy before bedtime.

During winter, people often get less light in the morning and too much artificial light at night, which throws off these signals, affecting sleep and mood.

Light boxes — devices that produce artificial light similar to sunlight — may be an effective way to correct that. In a meta-analysis of 19 studies, bright light therapy was superior to placebo; another small study found 61 percent of light-therapy patients saw their depression symptoms ebb in four weeks.

There is some evidence that sitting in front of a 10,000-lux (the measure of light intensity) light box for 30-45 minutes every day around sunrise during fall and winter decreases S.A.D. symptoms. If you’re currently experiencing S.A.D. symptoms, it’s not too late to start. You can also begin treating next season’s symptoms in the fall.

As tempting as it is to hit the snooze button on weekends, Dr. Desan said your mood will start to sag again if you don’t do your treatment every day around sunrise, so build light therapy into your life. Most research-grade light boxes allow you to sit at arm’s length and move your head, so you should be able to eat breakfast, drink coffee or read.

An effective light box is usually at least $100, but not every option is equally effective. Of the 24 devices Dr. Desan tested in 2019, only seven met clinical criteria. The rest weren’t as effective as research-grade boxes.

Get outside.

According to Anna Wirz-Justice, professor emeritus in the Centre for Chronobiology at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, natural light isn’t only cheaper than a light box, it’s also brighter. Sunrise light is equivalent to 1,000 lux. A rainy morning provides around 10,000 lux, and snow on the ground is even brighter, at 50,000 lux.

Aim to go outside within 30 minutes after sunrise. “You don’t need to see the sun cross the horizon,” said Dr. Huberman. “What you’re looking for is the quality of light that happens when the sun is low in the sky.”

Duration depends on where you live and the weather. Dr. Huberman suggested around five minutes outside if it’s bright or 10-15 minutes if it’s cloudy. It’s OK to wear glasses or contacts, but skip sunglasses and never look at the sun directly.

See a psychotherapist.

Since 2000, Kelly Rohan, a psychology professor at the University of Vermont, has been conducting clinical trials comparing cognitive behavioral therapy (or C.B.T.) to light therapy. Her work suggests both treatments are effective for people with S.A.D. — especially after a new diagnosis. But when she followed people with S.A.D. for two winters, C.B.T. worked better than bright light therapy to prevent recurrences.

Dr. Rohan said C.B.T. may reduce symptoms more effectively because it provides long-term coping skills for changing negative thought and behavior patterns — whereas light therapy only works when you do it.

For Ms. Sands, the combination of lifestyle changes and psychotherapy made a significant difference in reducing her symptoms. But nothing helped more than naming the debilitating dip in her mood every winter. “Because I have a diagnosis, I can be proactive,” Ms. Sands said. “I don’t have to wait until spring to feel better.”


Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wis.