Don’t Go All Winter Struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder


Sad woman in window.

We can all get a little down when the cold and gray winter months take hold, but for some people the change is severe enough to disrupt their daily lives. The American Psychiatric Association reports that around 5% of American adults suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Studies show that it’s most likely to impact women and young people, and effects can last as long as five months out of the year in some cases.

SAD has a number of causes, including the reduced level of sunlight that accompanies the onset of winter – a change that can disrupt your body’s natural biological clock. The Mayo Clinic lists several primary symptoms, including a tendency to oversleep, appetite changes and a craving for carbohydrates that results in weight gain, fatigue and low energy, and feelings of hopelessness or guilt.

If you notice any of the above symptoms, don’t wait – mild symptoms can get worse over time, so it’s a good idea to take them seriously and act quickly. By following the below steps, you can nip SAD in the bud and have a more enjoyable and productive winter.

1. See a professional counselor or therapist

This step is by far the most important, and it’s the first one you should turn to if you think you’re experiencing the effects of SAD. While we can offer some of the solutions below as strategies that have helped alleviate SAD for others, we’re far from mental health professionals. ALWAYS reach out to a qualified professional for help with mental health issues.

If you’re not sure where to find a mental health professional, you can reach out to someone you trust or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). The Helpline is also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service, and it helps refer callers to local treatment facilities and support groups. The service is free and confidential, and it’s available 24/7/365 in both English and Spanish. The online treatment locator is also a valuable tool for finding help.

2. Stay active

Exercise isn’t itself a treatment for depression, but explains that it can reduce your stress levels and help treatments achieve better results. According to Dr. Michael Craig Miller, Harvard Medical School’s assistant professor of psychiatry, “For some people [exercise] works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression.”

Because the symptoms of depression and SAD include disturbed sleep and reduced energy, the hardest part can be getting active for the first time. For this reason, Dr. Miller recommends that you begin with small steps: “Start with five minutes a day of walking or any activity you enjoy. Soon, five minutes of activity will become 10, and 10 will become 15.” You should feel better over the course of a few weeks, and by keeping up the new habit you’ll continue enjoying the benefits.

3. Get outside

Advice from WebMD recommends that people suffering from SAD spend time outside in the early morning to get exposure to natural light. In some places, particularly those furthest from the equator with the shortest amount of daylight, this strategy is impossible or impractical. Fortunately, light therapy can be an effective alternative that anyone can utilize.

Light therapy involves exposure to a special, “full spectrum” light for a specified time each day. You’ll start out by spending between 10 and 15 minutes with the light around two feet in front of you, and you gradually increase the amount of time to around 40 minutes each day depending on how well the treatment works for you. In some cases, a few days of deliberate light therapy can alleviate the effect of SAD. Results vary, so consult with a medical professional to come up with a solution for your specific situation.

4. Keep a social schedule

SAD makes it difficult to work up the energy for social engagements, but these interactions can boost your mood and help you manage your symptoms. Reconnect with old friends or spark new relationships, and considering joining a support group to meet other people who can identify with what you’re going through.

In some cases, relaxation techniques such as yoga can help people suffering from SAD, and these classes are a great way to connect with other people at the same time. If you’re not up to trying something new, join a group based around one of your existing interests and attend meetings regularly. Volunteer work is also a great way to improve your outlook and feel good about yourself.

SAD is now recognized as a diagnosable disorder in large part thanks to the work of Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, the Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School. For more information on the disorder and strategies to combat it, we encourage you to track down a copy of Dr. Rosenthal’s book, Winter Blues. Living with SAD can be a struggle, but you don’t have to deal with feelings of depression until the arrival of spring. With the above techniques and the help of a mental health professional, you can shake SAD and thrive all winter long.