Tips to Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder

Updated: Apr 5


With the change to daylight savings and the cold snap of winter, this time of year can bring about sadness, lack of motivation, and even depression. Some people experience a little bout of “winter blues,” but others struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a clinical depression that is related to changes in the seasons. Although some experience SAD in the summer, the most common occurrence is in winter, but you don’t have to be miserable for 4-5 months (yes, it’s that long!). Here are some tips to manage this time of year.

1. Get outside.

It isn’t always easy considering it can be so cold out, but forcing yourself to get out and move around can make a substantial difference in your mood. Obtaining sunlight and exercise are both mood boosters. Getting outside also gives you a change of scenery which can feel necessary when you are cooped up inside for months at a time.

2. Try light therapy.

A light therapy box is meant to mimic outdoor light. Research suggests that this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD.

Here are general guidelines for using a light box:

  • The box should provide an exposure of 10,000 lux of light.

  • The box should emit as little UV light as possible.

  • Use the device within the first hour of waking up in the morning for about 20-30 minutes at a distance of about 16 to 24 inches from the face.

  • Keep your eyes open when using the light box, but do not look directly at the light.

Light boxes are designed to be safe and effective, but they are not approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for SAD treatment yet.

You can buy a light box without a prescription. Your doctor may recommend a specific light box, but most health insurance plans do not cover the cost. You can find reasonably priced light boxes at Amazon.

3. See a therapist.

Your therapist can help you navigate strategies and techniques to manage depression and sadness this time of year. This might include some Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques such as behavioral activation. Behavioral activation helps to identify goals and increase behaviors that are rewarding and fun. This technique also helps to get you active and moving around. Your therapist might suggest you see a psychiatrist for medication management. Some people find that taking an antidepressant during the winter months is very helpful. To find a therapist, call your insurance company for referrals or check out the therapist directory on psychologytoday.com.

4. Decrease sugars and other processed foods from your diet.

This can be difficult as the colder months often make people crave comfort foods, but taking in foods high in sugars can cause you to feel sluggish and fatigued. Feeling exhausted can bring down your mood and reduce your motivation, thus, making your depression worse. It can be helpful to think about eating for wellness and try to incorporate more fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods into your diet. Think about what will make you feel better.

5. Manage your stressors.

Stress makes everything worse. You might have been able to balance the stress of work, family, and social life in the summer, but the winter can make it more intense. Find an outlet for your stress. Try to commit to a daily self-care task. This can be something as simple as eating your favorite meal or listening to your favorite song.

6. Connect

The holidays can be stressful. So can being cooped up inside for months at a time. Staying connected with others ensures you aren’t isolating. If you don’t feel like leaving your house, try to connect in other ways. Maybe make a goal to reach out to a friend or family member once per day. Even a quick text to engage with someone can make you feel more connected to others.

Yes, this time of year can be rough, so remember to be kind and patient with yourself.

Be well.

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