7 ways to prevent and manage seasonal affective disorder

As the seasons change, many people feel a little wistful and sad. This is particularly true when moving from warmer weather and longer days to cooler weather and shorter days (often referred to as the “winter blues”). But there’s a difference between mourning a change of seasons and having actual depression.

If the “winter blues” is something you experience every year, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This mood disorder is a type of depression. The difference is that it occurs at a specific time of year. Some people experience SAD in the spring or summer, but it’s most common during the fall or winter.1

What causes seasonal affective disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, studies indicate that people with SAD have reduced levels of the brain chemical, serotonin, which helps regulate mood. Though no one knows exactly what happens in the brain to cause some people to experience SAD, notes Christopher Cortman, Psy.D., a psychologist at Dr. Cortman & Associates and the author of Your Mind: An Owner’s Manual for a Better Life. What is known is that SAD most often occurs as the days shorten (in the fall and winter). It often gets better as the days get longer (in the spring and summer).1

Shorter days affect a person’s circadian rhythm — physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle2 — explains Avigail Lev, Psy.D., a cognitive behavioral therapist and the founder and director of Bay Area CBT Center. For some people, this change in circadian rhythm may cause depression.3

What are the signs of SAD?

The symptoms of general depression may also be symptoms of SAD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. These include:1

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

When you have SAD during the winter, you may also experience these symptoms:1

  • Oversleeping (known as hypersomnia)
  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)

Who’s most at risk for seasonal affective disorder?

Some people may be at greater risk of SAD than others, says psychiatrist Chester Wu, M.D., founder of Chester Wu, M.D. Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine. This includes:1

  • People with a family history of SAD
  • People who live in northern climates
  • People who have a history of depression or bipolar disorder

How to reduce SAD symptoms

Whether you’re looking to lower your risk of SAD or want to lessen existing symptoms, there are actions that may help. Try these 7 steps.

1. Get outside — early

Spending some time outdoors, especially first thing in the morning, can help manage SAD, says Dr. Cortman. It can require more motivation and effort in the winter because you have to bundle up, but it may be worth it.

“Wake up early and get exposure to early morning sunlight,” Dr. Cortman says. Doing this can help keep your circadian rhythm on track.4, 5

2. Invest in a light box or lamp

For most people in the United States, winter means fewer hours of sunlight, which, as the experts explain, can cause SAD.

To combat this, you may want to purchase a light-therapy box or lamp. These light boxes are 20 times brighter than a typical indoor light and are a common and effective treatment for SAD.1

“These lamps mimic the sun,” says Dr. Lev. To get the effects of light therapy, sit in front of the device for 20 to 30 minutes each day, ideally soon after waking up, suggests Dr. Wu.

3. Stick to a routine

Having a structured routine is very important for preventing or managing SAD. It helps manage the body’s circadian rhythm, explains Dr. Lev. Try getting up at the same time each morning.

Dr. Wu also recommends eating your meals at the same time each day, which may help regulate your circadian rhythm as well.

4. Talk with your doctor about a vitamin D supplement

This is particularly important in the winter, when most people get less sun exposure, says Dr. Wu. The sun provides the body with vitamin D.

Not getting enough vitamin D may increase the risk of SAD.1 A lack of vitamin D may also make depressive symptoms worse.6 Talk to your primary care provider to see if a vitamin D supplement may help.

5. Exercise

“Studies are showing exercise to be nearly as effective as cognitive therapy for anxiety and depression,” Dr. Cortman says. Moving your body may help, such as walking outside or yoga.7

6. Minimize stress

When you’re already feeling down, even the smallest stressors can make you feel worse. Some ways to manage stress include breathing exercises, meditation, physical exercise and spending time in nature, Dr. Wu explains.

Beyond reducing stress, encourage yourself to do something joyful. As Dr. Lev points out, when someone feels depressed, they tend to disengage. “Make sure you’re engaging in hobbies that you enjoy,” she says.

7. Seek professional help

If you’ve tried everything on this list and still don’t feel great, talk to your primary care provider or a therapist. If you do go the therapist route, you may want to consider looking for one who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically CBT-SAD, which is a type of CBT that has been adapted for people with SAD.

CBT is a type of therapy that helps you to understand how your thoughts can affect your emotions and behavior.8 It also helps you come up with self-help strategies.7

What’s important to remember about SAD is that there are effective treatments available. You may always prefer summer to winter, but that doesn’t mean you have to experience overwhelming sadness every year as the days get shorter. If you’re struggling with SAD, talk to your provider, who can help you create an individualized plan.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org/chat for 24-hour, toll-free, confidential support and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. For TTY users, use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

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