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Tips to combat seasonal affective disorder for cancer survivors

Seasonal affective disorder, or the “winter blues,” is a form of depression related to a change in season. It is particularly common during winter months when it gets dark outside earlier and the weather is colder.

“For people with cancer, this change in season can also lead to a more existential awareness of life, leading them to consider their own mortality,” says Dennis Buttimer, M.Ed, CEAP, RYT, CHC, a life and wellness coach at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont.

Certain forms of chemotherapy and immunotherapy can increase the risk of depression as well.

“This can be a double-whammy for people with cancer,” he says.

Although seasonal affective disorder can be difficult, there are ways to manage your symptoms. 

Signs of seasonal affective disorder

The most common signs of seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Changes in appetite

  • Fatigue

  • Feelings of sadness, depression, hopelessness, guilt or agitation  

  • Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy

  • Social withdrawal

  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much

  • Weight gain

Note: If you have thoughts of harming yourself or others, consult a physician or mental health professional right away.

What causes seasonal affective disorder?

Experts aren’t sure the exact cause of seasonal affective disorder, but they believe a disruption in the following can play a role:

  • Circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock.

  • Melatonin levels. Melatonin affects your mood and sleep patterns.

  • Serotonin levels. Serotonin is a brain chemical that can affect your mood.

A family history of SAD, a personal history of depression or living far from the equator can also increase your risk.

How to manage symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

If you suspect you have seasonal affective disorder, Buttimer suggests the following lifestyle modifications:

  • Sunlight. Take a walk outside, open your blinds or sit near a window. Sunlight can help with symptoms of SAD.  

  • Physical activity. Exercise can increase serotonin, which is a feel-good hormone in the body, and decrease stress and anxiety, which make SAD worse.

  • Share your feelings. Talking with a trusted friend or counselor can help you process your emotions so you can get “unstuck.”

  • Mindfulness activities. Meditation, guided imagery and journaling can help you process your emotions and thoughts in a healthy way.

If your symptoms persist, contact your physician or a mental health professional, as prescription medications, light therapy and talk therapy can help.

Learn more ways to reduce stress and improve your well-being.

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