Whether your symptoms are mild or severe, there are steps you can take to help improve your quality of life during winter, and we explore some below.
What is SAD?
SAD is defined as a mood disorder characterized by reduced energy, an increased desire to sleep, overeating, and other classic symptoms of major depressive disorder, such as feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, loss of interest in activities, withdrawal from social activities, and thoughts of suicide.
While SAD typically presents as depression, many disorders, including general anxiety disorder and especially bipolar disorder, demonstrate seasonality.
While the exact causes of SAD are unknown, it is generally accepted that reduced sunlight hours is the main culprit. It is theorized that, with less sunlight, your biological clock, serotonin levels, and melatonin levels may all suffer, resulting in depression or depressive-like symptoms.
If you or a person you know is in danger of harm, call 1-800-273-8255 in the US or your national mental health hotline. If you are unsure of whom to contact, call the police (911 in the US, 112 in Europe).
1. Invest in a SAD lamp
SAD lamps are designed to simulate sunlight, with the goal of replacing some of the sunlight lost to axial tilt. Studies have shown them effective in reducing symptoms of SAD and equally as effective as drugs like Prozak.
SAD lamps are relatively inexpensive (starting at around $45) and easy to use, making them an ideal starting point for treating wintertime depression. SAD lamps have been shown to be especially effective for milder cases of SAD, although they can be paired with other treatments to help with more serious symptoms.
2. Prioritize time outdoors
While SAD lamps are effective, there’s no substitute for natural sunlight. Spending time outdoors during the daytime is highly recommended to help stave off SAD and the winter blues. In addition to helping maintain proper circadian rhythms, sunlight enables your body to produce Vitamin D. While evidence is mixed on the link between Vitamin D deficiency and poor mental health, its role in maintaining overall health is without question.
In addition to extra time in the sun, spending time outdoors, and especially spending time in nature, has been linked to increased cognitive function, reduced stress, and improved overall mental health.
SAD can drive people to stay indoors and, in northern areas where it’s most prevalent, you also have to deal with the cold. However, it’s well worth spending time outdoors for your mental health.
3. Exercise regularly
The relation between exercise and good mental health is complex but undeniable. A wide variety of scientific evidence confirms that exercise improves mood, helps stabilize symptoms of depression and anxiety, and is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your body and mind, all year round.
With winter weather and SAD symptoms, it can be all too easy to stay at home in a lethargic state. But exercising is one of the most powerful and effective weapons in your arsenal to combat seasonal depression. Exercising outdoors is a great way to combine these benefits with additional sunlight, and doing so with others adds the benefits of socializing, too.
4. Optimize your diet for mood
It’s common for people with SAD to crave carb-heavy, sugary, or high-fat foods during the winter. Plus, in general, in most parts of the world, winter foods tend to be heavier. There’s definitely nothing wrong with comfort food. However, there is also evidence of a connection between diet and mood.
Fortunately, it seems like there are a variety of foods and diets that can help promote good mental health, from the vegetable-rich to ketogenic and paleo diets. If you’re struggling to find a balanced, healthy diet yourself, consider a meal kit delivery service, many of which cater to special diets and ensure you get a healthy mix of vegetables, protein, carbs, vitamins, and minerals.
5. Make sure your general health is in check
Now is not the time to let your general physical health slip. Winter usually brings about more colds, flu, and general ailments, as people congregate and spend more time indoors. Make an appointment with your doctor (or take advantage of the convenience of an online doctor service) at the start of the winter season for a general consultation. If possible, ask for a blood workup to make sure that everything is in order.
The last thing you want to have to deal with, in addition to symptoms of depression or anxiety, is physical illness. Plus, certain vitamin deficiencies, like Vitamin B12, can have an impact on mood. While being physically healthy isn’t a cure for mental illness, being sick definitely can wreak havoc on your mental health.
It may seem cliché, but you really can help yourself by helping others. Evidence suggests that volunteering can help improve mental health, especially for individuals who have trouble socializing (which is par for course with SAD). Volunteering also serves to get you out of the house, which we’ve already seen can contribute to improved mental health.
Volunteering holds particularly strong benefits for older individuals. If you suffer from SAD or general winter blues and are over the age of 65, this might be an effective way to stave off depression. Volunteering can promote socialization, a sense of community, and feelings of gratitude, all of which contribute to strong mental health.
7. Keep to a regular sleep schedule
A regular sleep schedule is one of the most important factors when it comes to maintaining good mental health. Unfortunately, changes in the times of sunset and sunrise, reduced sunlight, and cold weather can all have a big impact on your sleep schedule.
If you experience SAD or general winter blues, do your best to stick to a regular sleep schedule. Importantly, do your best not to sleep in too late. This is a common symptom of SAD, but sleeping for more than 8 hours will be of no benefit to your mental health.
Additionally, aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, insofar as possible. Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep is important, but if you’re going to bed at dramatically different times, you’ll lose many of those benefits.
8. Avoid screens one to two hours before bed
In a similar vein, try to avoid screens one to two hours before bed. Blue light from screens can throw off your circadian rhythm, which is already delicate from the reduced sunlight during the winter months. This can make it extremely difficult to stick to a regular sleep schedule despite your best efforts.
Rather than spending time on your computer, tablet, or smartphone, try winding down by reading a book or listening to a podcast or audiobook. If you’re somebody who has trouble justifying downtime, opt for podcasts or audiobooks that can help you in your career or day-to-day life. Of course, listening to music is another great way to lull yourself to sleep.
9. Practice meditation
The benefits of meditation for mental health are numerous. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, promote emotional wellbeing, mitigate against age-related mental deterioration, and improve sleep.
Mindfulness, in particular, a form of meditation achieved by “focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique” (Oxford Languages), has been shown to carry significant mental health benefits.
Meditation is something you can practice all year round, but it may be particularly useful to you in the wintertime if you suffer from seasonal depression or generally poor mental health. There is a slew of free meditation apps out there to help you practice mindfulness, gratitude, and more.
10. Speak to a licensed counselor
Speaking to a licensed counselor is the most effective and impactful solution for dealing with SAD, depression, and anxiety, or any other mental health problems you may be experiencing—during winter or any other time of the year. A licensed counselor can assess your symptoms, provide a diagnosis and, most importantly, devise a course of treatment for genuine relief.
Online mental health platforms like Betterhelp and Talkspace are inexpensive ways to get started. Many offer matching services to help you get set up with the right therapist for your needs. While there are some important differences between online and in-person therapy, the former has been shown to be just as effective as the latter for a variety of mental health issues, including SAD, depression, and anxiety.
It’s not uncommon to feel less energetic or experience mild, short-lived mood changes during winter. But if you struggle with sleepiness, poor concentration, feelings of sadness or anxiety, or just don’t feel like yourself during the winter, you may be experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder or SAD.
There are constructive ways to reduce these symptoms, including light therapy, spending time outdoors, exercising or volunteering, and making sure your sleep schedule and general health are regulated. The most effective solution, however, is usually to speak with a licensed therapist who can provide a diagnosis and personalized course of treatment to help you start feeling better, all winter long.