With 2021’s autumn equinox come and gone, sunset is starting to creep forward. Soon, it will be practically dark by 5 p.m. — a dispiriting prospect.

For some, the shift from sun-drenched summer to dark and dismal weather is more than a mere bummer, and can herald a period of cyclical depression known as seasonal affective disorder, or (appropriately yet unfortunately) SAD. According to quarterly journal Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry, SAD impacts up to 7.9% of the general population, depending on the study and geographic region in question, and can range from a mild case of the “winter blues” to more debilitating symptoms.

If you start to feel glum, it may be tempting to try and power through the feeling, or brush it off as pandemic fatigue. But the change in seasons is a good time to check in with yourself and loved ones, evaluate how you’re feeling and take some simple, proactive steps to maintain your mental health.

“There are at least two useful ways to think about SAD,” says Kristopher Nielsen, a clinical psychologist and researcher at Victoria University of Wellington.”First, we can think of it as a mental illness. SAD is a recognized sub-type of depression that shows a seasonal pattern, occurring at the same time every year.

“The second way we can think about SAD is as an extension of normal mood fluctuations across the seasons. For some people, this dip in mood is more extreme than others, to the point that it can become a problem. It is these people who we could say are experiencing SAD.”

Nielsen points out that many of the symptoms of SAD — which include low mood, fatigue or irritability, loss of interest, and changes in appetite and sleeping patterns — are similar to depression. COVID-19 restrictions, which can limit time spent outside and in-person social contact, can exacerbate these stressors.

Although a mental health professional should diagnose and treat SAD, “just as people who experience asthma may have to use inhalers, or lactose intolerant people have to learn to avoid dairy, people with SAD may have to find ways to support their mood and look after themselves during the times of year that they are more vulnerable,” Nielsen says. “Maintaining regular sleep, regular aerobic exercise and a reasonably balanced diet are some of the core building blocks.”

Try light therapy. Nielsen says that some SAD treatment can include light therapy — spending time exposed to an ultraviolet lamp or light therapy box that mimics natural light. Actual natural light is, of course, even better — build a daily walk into your schedule. According to German architecture workshop ReThink Daylight, even a cloudy winter day can deliver around 10,000 lux, so try and spend at least 10 to 15 minutes outside (enough time to receive health benefits).

Shift your sleep schedule. Adjust your wake-up time so you can experience some early-morning sunshine. This is particularly easy to do in Japan, which doesn’t have daylight savings — sunrise is currently around 5:30 a.m. Establishing a consistent bedtime will help you stick to a schedule that works for you.

Stay engaged. “I like to emphasize engagement with enjoyable or personally meaningful activities,” Nielsen advises. “These are the kinds of things that make life worth living, yet when we are feeling stressed, they are often the first things we throw out of our schedule.” Time to check in on your hobbies.

Talk to someone. “If problems continue then talking to a professional can be a good option, and medication can also be helpful for some people,” Nielsen says.

The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit telljp.com.

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