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When the lights go out

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Nesha Humes Stanton
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Moving away from home and settling into various locations all over the globe is common in the military lifestyle. The various time zones, cultural shifts, and environmental changes affect service members and their families differently. Germany’s dark winter in particular, can introduce its own set of challenges, such as seasonal affective disorder; a treatable form of depression dependent upon varying exposure to the sun.

SAD comes and goes with the seasons, typically kicking off in the late fall and departing in the spring, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

With the hours of daylight decreasing, U.S. Air Force Maj. Ryan Buhite, 86th Medical Operations Squadron mental health element chief and psychologist, emphasizes the importance of seeking professional help before SAD impacts your work and lifestyle.

“If there’s a two week period where you’re feeling down or depressed most of the days of the week— see your doctor,” Buhite stated.

Buhite said seasonal affective disorder shares the same symptoms as depression: feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and worthlessness. However, some of the symptoms more specific to SAD are carbohydrate cravings, social withdrawal, and feeling like you want to “hibernate”.

Prevention is key, Buhite advises to continue exercising in the morning to stimulate activity in addition to consulting with your primary care manager to take vitamin D supplements this winter.

“It’s also really important to get out and socialize with your friends and family,” Buhite said. “And then, routines are important. You don’t want to get out of your daily routine in the winter. Yes -- it’s more challenging when it’s cold to bundle up -- but it’s really important to get outside.”

The 86th MDOS mental health clinic offers cognitive behavioral therapy and the 86th MDOS family health clinic offers a behavioral health optimization program, where a psychologist works with your PCM on mental health issues as well as physical health issues.

In order to combat SAD, the 86th MDOS mental health clinic says medication is effective and also recommends speaking with your primary care manager or mental health specialists about a medication prescription, CBT or light therapy.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy works on thinking about winter and the darkness in less negative ways,” said Buhite. “It also focuses on how to keep healthy routines that are helpful in countering the lack of light such as work out in the morning, socialize with others, get outside, eat healthy, develop winter time interests and take vitamin D.”

Another treatment option is purchasing a light box and sitting next to it for 20 to 60 minutes in the morning.

“It helps the body awaken by decreasing the hormone melatonin that helps us stay asleep at night” Buhite said. “If someone wants to do light therapy the recommendations are for 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent lights, which are about 20 times greater than ordinary indoor lighting. The light box helps to try to reset your biological clock and circadian rhythm.”

Buhite also stated that individuals who pursue light therapy should do so under the supervision of a health professional since light therapy is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Though light therapy is very effective,” Buhite continued, “Research shows that those that do light therapy are more likely to have their symptoms return in subsequent years if they do not use the light therapy in the future, versus those who use cognitive behavioral therapy, who are less likely to have symptoms return the following year.”

Active duty members may call the 86th MDOS mental health clinic directly to schedule an appointment for CBT at DSN 479-2390, and the appointment line at DSN 479-2273 to schedule a BHOP appointment. All DoD card holders are encouraged to contact their PCM for SAD treatment options.