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Seasonal affective disorder: Therapists weigh in on how to cope

Learn more about the signs, symptoms and treatment for SAD.

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Seasonal depression or SAD is common in the fall and winter months.

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As winter approaches, the days get shorter and the weather turns colder, nearly 10 million people in the US will experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression. SAD looks a lot like depression (think lack of energy, low mood and loss of interest or motivation) because it is a form of depression. It's not the same as clinical depression, but it's still a mood disorder that requires professional attention if it's affecting your life. 

Even if you don't have a history of depression, SAD can still affect you (although it is more common for those with a history). While it's not a permanent condition -- it often begins in fall and resolves by spring -- there are several things you can do to help prevent it or cope with it.

Even if you don't personally experience SAD, learning about it can help you support family, friends or coworkers who may experience it. Keep reading to find out more about SAD, who is at risk, and for tips from mental health professionals on how to cope with it. 

What is SAD and who is at risk for getting it?

"Seasonal Affective disorder (also known as seasonal depression) is a form of depression that tends to affect people during the winter months. Symptoms are most common November to April and can vary from mild to severe," said Malin McKinley, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and depression based in Agoura Hills, California. Although anyone can experience SAD, seasonal depression in the US tends to affect people more in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, the Northeast or other places that experience shorter, darker days and colder weather in the winter. 

What are the symptoms?

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

If you have a family history of depression, have a depression or bipolar diagnosis, or are female, then your risk of developing SAD is higher, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"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," McKinley said, referring to fewer hours of daylight and overcast skies that block out direct sunlight.

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What can you do to prevent SAD?

If you have a history of depression, bipolar disorder or suspect that you may be susceptible to it, maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle is helpful. Science has found exercise in particular helpful for easing symptoms of depression.

"Changing certain behaviors that exacerbate depression or SAD will reduce the chances of developing SAD/depression. 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," Amy Cirbus, a New York-based Talkspace therapist, said.

"Lifestyle changes such as exercising 30 minutes per day, going outside to obtain natural daylight/sunlight, getting enough sleep, eating healthy, avoiding drugs and alcohol, decreasing screen time, meditating and connecting with loved ones are all great ways to increase emotional well-being and decrease symptoms," McKinley said.

Light therapy is another promising intervention, since increasing light exposure (even if from an artificial source) can help 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.

Read more: Online vs. in-person therapy: What you should know

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If your SAD symptoms are affecting your life, you may need to see a doctor. 

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How to cope with SAD

If you think you're experiencing SAD and it's affecting your ability to get through your day, work and maintain relationships, you should see a doctor. Regularly participating in talk therapy with a licensed therapist can also be very helpful. In addition to seeking professional help from a doctor, psychiatrist or other mental health professional you can consider the following tips. 

Create and 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 adds 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 is all very important," Cirbus said. 

Take care of yourself 

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Preparing healthy meals and eating a balanced diet can be helpful for SAD.

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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 is important for helping you feel your best.

Try light therapy 

Woman doing a light therapy session. France

Woman doing a light therapy session.

BSIP/UIG

Getting outside for at least 20-30 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 20-90 minutes in front of a light box 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.

You can purchase them online in a variety of different sizes and prices. 


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.

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.