The shorter days and colder weather of winter can make anyone feel down, especially if you live a long way from the equator. The reduced light, warmth, and color of winter can leave you feeling melancholy, irritable, or tired. But if these feelings recur each year, make it tough to function during the winter months, and then subside in spring or early summer, you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal depression can affect your health, your relationships, and your everyday activities. But no matter how hopeless you feel, there are things you can do to keep your mood and life stable throughout the year.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs at the same time each year, usually in winter. Otherwise known as seasonal depression, SAD can affect your mood, sleep, appetite, and energy levels, taking a toll on all aspects of your life from your relationships and social life to work, school, and your sense of self-worth. You may feel like a completely different person to who you are in the summer: hopeless, sad, tense, or stressed, with no interest in friends or activities you normally love. While a less common form of the disorder causes depression during the summer months, SAD usually begins in fall or winter when the days become shorter and remains until the brighter days of spring or early summer.
SAD affects about 1% to 2% of the population, particularly women and young people, while a milder form of winter blues may affect as many 10 to 20 percent of people. Since the amount of winter daylight you receive changes the farther you are from the equator, SAD is most common in people who live at least 30 degrees latitude north or south (north of places such as Jacksonville, Florida, Austin, Texas, Cairo, Egypt, and Hangzhou, China, or south of Perth, Australia, Durban, South Africa, and Cordoba, Argentina). No matter where you live, though, or how dark and cold the winters, the good news is that, like other forms of depression, SAD is treatable. The more you understand about seasonal depression, the better equipped you’ll be to manage or even prevent the condition.
The signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are the same as those for major depression. SAD is distinguished from depression by the remission of symptoms in the spring and summer months (or winter and fall in the case of summer SAD).
As with depression, the severity of SAD symptoms can vary from person to person—often depending on genetic vulnerability and geographic location. For many, the symptoms usually begin mildly at the start of fall and get progressively worse through the darkest days of winter. Then, by spring or early summer, the symptoms lift until you’re in remission and feel normal and healthy again.
Seasonal depression can make it hard to motivate yourself to make changes, but there are plenty of steps you can take to help yourself feel better. Recovery takes time but you’ll likely feel a little better each day. By adopting healthy habits and scheduling fun and relaxation into your day, you can help lift the cloud of seasonal affective disorder and keep it from coming back.
Tip #1: Get as much natural sunlight as possible—it’s free!
Whenever possible, get outside during daylight hours and expose yourself to the sun without wearing sunglasses (but never stare directly at the sun).
- Take a short walk outdoors, have your coffee outside if you can stay warm enough.
- Increase the amount of natural light in your home and workplace by opening blinds and drapes and sitting near windows.
- Some people find that painting walls in lighter colors or using daylight simulation bulbs helps to combat winter SAD.
Tip #2: Exercise regularly—it can be as effective as medication
Regular exercise is a powerful way to fight seasonal depression, especially if you’re able to exercise outside in natural daylight.
- Regular exercise can boost serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals. In fact, exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication.
- Exercise can also help to improve your sleep and boost your self-esteem.
- Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of activity on most days. Even something as simple as walking a dog, for example, can be good exercise for you and the animal, as well as a great way to get outdoors and interact with other people.
Tip #3: Reach out to family and friends—and let them help
Close relationships are vital in reducing isolation and helping you manage SAD. Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. It may feel more comfortable to retreat into your shell, but being around other people will boost your mood. Even if you’ve retreated from relationships that were once important to you, make the effort to reconnect or start new relationships.
- Call or email an old friend to meet for coffee. Or reach out to someone new—a work colleague or neighbor, for example. Most of us feel awkward about reaching out, but be the one to break the ice.
- Join a support group for depression. Sometimes, just talking about what you’re going through can help you feel better. Being with others who are facing the same problems can help reduce your sense of isolation and provide inspiration to make positive changes.
- Meet new people with a common interest by taking a class, joining a club, or enrolling in a special interest group that meets on a regular basis. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that’s fun for you.
- Volunteer your time. Helping others is one of the best ways to feel better about yourself, expand your social network, and overcome SAD.
Tip #4: Eat the right diet
Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, will help you keep your energy up and minimize mood swings.
- While the symptoms of SAD can make you crave sugary foods and simple carbohydrates, such as pasta and white bread, complex carbohydrates are a better choice. Foods such as oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, and bananas can boost your feel-good serotonin levels without the subsequent sugar crash.
- Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats—such as oily fish, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseeds—can also improve your mood and may even boost the effectiveness of antidepressant medication.
Tip #5: Take steps to deal with stress—by making time for fun
Whatever the time of year, too much stress can exacerbate or even trigger depression. Figure out the things in your life that stress you out, such as work overload or unsupportive relationships, and make a plan to avoid them or minimize their impact.
- Practicing daily relaxation techniques can help you manage stress, reduce negative emotions such as anger and fear, and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation.
- Do something you enjoy every day. Having fun is a great stress buster, so make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be painting, playing the piano, working on your car, or simply hanging out with friends.
The mainstay of winter SAD treatment is light therapy, otherwise known as phototherapy. Light therapy aims to replace the missing daylight of winter by exposing you to bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Daily exposure can suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin to help you feel more awake and alert, less drowsy and melancholy.
Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85 percent of SAD cases. However, the timing and length of exposure needed can vary according to your symptoms and circadian rhythm, so you’ll need guidance from your doctor or mental health professional to find the right dosage. Your doctor or therapist can also help you choose a light therapy product that’s both effective and safe. (While tanning beds generate sufficient light, they should never be used to treat SAD as the UV rays they produce can be harmful to the skin and eyes.)
Light therapy has to be continued daily throughout the winter months to be effective. Starting light therapy before the onset of symptoms in the fall may even help prevent seasonal affective disorder.