If you’re one of the estimated 10 million Americans who suffers from seasonal affective disorder, (also known, appropriately, as SAD), your symptoms might have kicked in hard this past weekend with the time change. For many adults — especially women and young people — ‘falling back’ means falling into a funk again.
Mayo Clinic psychologist Craig Sawchuk explains that disruptions to our sleep-wake cycle due to a reduction in light exposure represents an environmental risk factor. “While we benefit from ‘gaining an hour of sleep’ and temporarily increased light in the morning, this quickly diminishes. Soon, we go to work or school in the dark and come home in the dark as well.” This primes our system for fatigue, he says. “Energy goes down, carbohydrate cravings go up, weight increases, and the desire to sleep increases.”
The time change is beyond your control. Compensating for it with some strategic wellness design changes in your home is not.
Lighting is Key
Since a major cause of SAD is reduced daylight hours, many who suffer from the condition invest in therapeutic light boxes, which Sawchuk says should deliver its intensity at the start of the day. Using it within an hour of waking up is ideal, he notes.
It’s possible that circadian lighting systems that mimic the sun’s path through the day could also be useful for addressing SAD. “Hypothetically, it makes sense,” the psychologist theorizes. “If the lighting systems during fall/winter months can approximate the light path during the spring and summer months, then it could help compensate for those more sensitive to diminished light.”
“Circadian lighting is used to supplement the deficiency of natural lighting many people experience from extended periods of time inside their homes or office spaces,” explains Charlie Kindel, chief technology officer at SnapAV, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based audio video products manufacturer. Rather than serving as a therapeutic solution for SAD, Kindel suggests that it be used as a passive approach to supporting healthy wake-sleep cycles and possibly preventing the onset of symptoms.
While you’re looking at your home’s artificial lighting, keep in mind that natural light is important too. “Open up the blinds and turn on lights around the home. Get outside when you can and it’s safe to do so,” Sawchuk says.
“To help feel more balanced with the season, try sungazing,” suggests Susan Weis-Bohlen, a Baltimore area certified ayurvedic practitioner and author of Seasonal Self-Care Rituals (Tiller Press, December 2020). “This floods the body with the rays of the sun, setting the circadian clock naturally. In the early morning at dawn, and again at dusk, gaze towards the sun for as long as you feel comfortable.”
She also suggests keeping your bedroom electronics-free, including keeping out phones, tablets, TVs and computers. “These items never turn off completely and can disturb sleep.”
Stepping away from your screens, especially if you’re prone to doom-scrolling, is also healthy, particularly if you can get outside for five or 10 minutes a day at least. Having a safe, appealing outdoor living area can be helpful in this regard, especially during a pandemic when you’re trying to keep your distance from strangers.
Houseplants can also help reduce stress, add indoor air quality benefits and speed healing from injury. Can they also help relieve SAD symptoms? “Plants need light, right?” Sawchuk muses, adding, “Caring for plants requires that they get both natural (opening up the blinds, putting them by windows) and artificial light (lamps). Likewise, it helps to improve the aesthetics of the physical environment, making the home more pleasant.”
Design and Décor Changes
“Giving a room a new paint job, rearranging the furniture, etc. actually has a good impact on our mood,” Sawchuk suggests. “Our brain likes novelty, so changing things up can be extremely helpful.”
Lightening and brightening your home, particularly with a nature infusion, can help address SAD symptoms, shares Denver area interior designer Doris Pearlman, the owner of Possibilities with Design. “The color white lifts spirits, while bright green represents nature and renewal, reducing stress.”
These can be achieved with paint, paneling, pillows, furniture, cabinetry or fabrics – whichever fits your style and need. “Vibrant color is a key element to alleviating SAD,” the designer declares, suggesting bright pops of accent hues to add fun to a room. “Many people with Seasonal Affective Disorder wear yellow-tinted glasses to elevate their mood and mitigate melatonin levels,” Pearlman comments, “so why not splash some yellow around your home!”
Elena Federovskaya, a color scientist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, agrees with Pearlman’s verdict on yellow, but cautions against using it in a bedroom for its irritability potential or in south-facing and overheated rooms. She also points to research on green’s positive connections to nature and refreshing properties and white’s benefits in conveying clarity and cleanliness and proscription against using it in north-facing rooms for its coldness. “You can conclude that dark colors associated with negative emotions should make SAD worse,” she summarizes. Giving your home a winter brightening can brighten your mood too.