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Seasonal Affective Disorder: 4 Ways to Manage It

It's more than the winter blues.

Seasonal Affective Disorder
Less sunlight in winter can increase the risk of depression and mood disorders in some people.
Getty Images

Seasonal affective disorder, or seasonal depression, is more common in winter time, when many of us have less access to sunlight.

Seasonal depression is more than just the "winter blues," though. It can include a lack of energy, listlessness, poor focus and diminished interest and motivation. Symptoms include oversleeping, weight gain and even suicidal ideation.

According to researchers at Boston University, seasonal affective disorder impacts 10 million Americans. Women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with it than men.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that tends to affect people during the winter months, according to Malin McKinley, a psychotherapist based in Agoura Hills, California. 

"Although the causes of SAD are unknown, the disorder has been linked to biochemical imbalances in the brain due to a decrease in both daylight and sunlight during the winter months." 

Read on: How to Deal with the End of Daylight Saving Time

"Symptoms are most common November to April and can vary from mild to severe," McKinley told CNET. Although anyone can experience SAD, seasonal depression in the US tends to affect people more in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska the Northeast and other regions that experience colder winters.  It's also more common among people with a history of depression.

Some people with SAD can experience the reverse in spring and early summer -- a manic phase  when the days are longer,

What are the symptoms of seasonal depression?

  • Depression
  • Negative thoughts
  • Fatigue
  • Listlessness
  • Hypersomnia (Sleeping too much)
  • Increased intake of carbohydrates/weight gain
  • Social withdrawal/hibernating 

How do you treat seasonal affective disorder?

If you have a history of depression or bipolar disorder, a healthy and active lifestyle is essential to minimizing the impact of SAD. Exercise, in particular, can ease symptoms of depression. 

"Changing certain behaviors that exacerbate depression or SAD will reduce the chances of developing SAD [or] depression," New York therapist Amy Cirbus said. "For example, staying active despite lacking the motivation, exercising and eating healthy -- even when you are not hungry. It is also important to reach out for support."

McKinley added that lifestyle changes -- including 30 minutes of exercise a day, going outside to obtain sunlight, getting adequate sleep, eating healthy and avoiding drugs and alcohol -- can also help.

"Decreasing screen time, meditating and connecting with loved ones are [also] great ways to increase emotional well-being and decrease symptoms," he added.

Read more:
 Try Light Therapy to Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder


There are also some basic steps you can take to address seasonal depression.

1. Follow a routine 

"With SAD there is the tendency to want to stay home and isolate as the lack of sunlight might make a person less motivated to get out. This can cause other strong feelings, which only add to the reason for not wanting to get out, leaving a person stuck in a vicious cycle. So creating a routine that ensures a person has activities during the day, support and self-care are all very important," Cirbus said.

2. Find your triggers 

When you experience depression, you often have common triggers that can send you into a negative place or an emotional low. Find what those are, like scrolling social media or watching the news, and limit those as much as possible. "Finding out what your triggers are and being able to have a plan so you know what to do when you're triggered [is helpful]," Johnson said. 

3. Try light therapy 

Woman doing a light therapy session. France

Light therapy can help combat seasonal depression.

BSIP/UIG

Getting outside for at least 20 to 30 minutes a day is ideal. But, if you don't have a lot of sun where you live or your schedule keeps you indoors a lot, a light therapy device is a relatively inexpensive solution. "Sitting 20 to 90 minutes in front of a lightbox specially designed for light therapy has shown to be effective within weeks. The light stimulates pathways in the brain that controls sleep and helps regulate mood," McKinley said.

Read on: How Light Therapy Can Help Fight Jet Lag, Insomnia and Depression

Increasing light exposure, even from an artificial source, can help some people alleviate or prevent symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic. Light exposure affects the body's ability to produce certain hormones and helps regulate the circadian rhythm -- both of which are important for overall health, sleep and mood regulation.

4. Maintain your mental and physical health

Making an effort to get enough sleep, exercise regularly, stay hydrated and eat healthy, balanced meals will all support your overall health and mental health. Don't be afraid to reach out to friends and family when you feel down. Emotional support, connection and a sense of community are important for helping you feel your best.

If you think your ability to get through the day, focus on work and maintain relationships is being impacted by SAD, see a licensed health care provider. Talk therapy can also help.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.