Insight Behavioral Health – If shorter days and colder weather deplete your energy and make you feel down, you may be one of the 10 million Americans who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Also known as seasonal depression or the winter blues, SAD is a form of depression related to the change of seasons in late fall and early winter. Seasonal changes disrupt our circadian rhythm, which regulates the body’s internal clock, as well as brain hormones that control everything from mood to appetite. It’s not uncommon to feel out of sorts this time of year, but if the transition in seasons is limiting your ability to work, enjoy time with family, and live your life to its fullest, it is important to take the steps necessary to manage your symptoms and prevent them from getting worse. Whether you experience seasonal depression yourself or have a friend or family member prone to feeling blue in the winter months, the following guide will help you identify common signs of SAD and choose effective strategies to manage symptoms. 

What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder and How Can I Manage Them?

With gray skies and stress during the holiday season, it is not uncommon to feel occasional weariness. But if you experience certain symptoms as we transition into the winter months, such as daily feelings of depression, chronic tiredness, and loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy, you may have seasonal affective disorder. Anyone can experience SAD, but it is more common in women and those who live in the northern regions of the United States. Some other signs and symptoms to look out for include anxiety, hopelessness, mood swings, social withdrawal, weight gain, and general discontent. If you find yourself dealing with any of these signs and symptoms, be patient, focus on the positives in your life, and try some of these tips to take control of your well-being. 

See Your Doctor

If you are experiencing symptoms of seasonal depression that are negatively impacting your lifestyle and overall health, your first step should be talking with your primary care physician. SAD is a serious form of depression that requires diagnosis and treatment by a mental health professional. A thorough evaluation, including physical exams, lab testing, and a psychological evaluation, will allow your healthcare providers to determine your needs. Many patients benefit from psychotherapy (talk therapy), medications, and lifestyle/home remedies to treat seasonal depression. 

Stay Active

Exercise is beneficial for everyone, but it can be especially useful in combating symptoms of seasonal depression. Physical activity accelerates the production of endorphins, which are feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain that reduce pain and increase feelings of happiness. Other benefits of physical activity include increases in metabolism and energy levels, improved sleep, and a reduction in anxiety. Any variety of exercise is advantageous, even if it’s as little as ten minutes a day. Walking, stretching, swimming, yoga, and active housework can all deliver results as long as you are consistent.

Go Outside

It can be difficult to leave our cozy homes to spend time outdoors in the cold weather months. Yet nature offers so many benefits for our bodies and minds that we shouldn’t miss during the fall and winter seasons, including stress and tension relief and increased levels of energy. One of the biggest factors in SAD is our limited exposure to natural daylight and the impact that has on developing depression. Getting outside regularly, even in frigid weather, will help your body absorb some much needed vitamin D and enhance your health. 

Try Light Therapy

If you are unable to get outdoors for some natural sunlight, light therapy is an effective alternative. There are a wide range of lamps available that are designed to mimic outdoor light and produce a chemical change in the brain to improve mood and other symptoms of SAD. Your light should produce at least 10,000 lux and have the ability to adjust brightness. Light therapy is most beneficial as soon as you wake up, usually for 20 to 30 minutes. Check with your healthcare provider for recommendations and guidance on how to get the most out of light therapy technologies.  

Set a Sleep Schedule & Routine 

With the end of daylight saving time and our shortest hours of daylight of the year, you may have noticed a disruption in your sleep schedule and routines. Many people find themselves especially sleepy this time of year and research shows people with SAD sleep two hours longer in the winter months compared to summer. Others struggle with insomnia and feel sleepy throughout the day. One of the best ways to counter your sleep issues is by establishing a sleep schedule and nightly routine. Setting a consistent time for “lights off” on both weekdays and weekends to maintain your circadian rhythm, keeping the bedroom dark and cool, and avoiding caffeine and naps in the hours before bedtime are all effective and easy to implement.     

Find a Good Book

When we’re stuck inside, a great way to pass the time and lessen the symptoms of SAD is reading. Immersing yourself in a good book is a productive way to avoid focusing on your problems, learn something new, and find fulfillment in your day. There is also ample research that reading reduces stress and anxiety, helps you get a good night’s sleep, and prevents cognitive decline. As you plan your reading list, be sure to take advantage of your local library’s services. They are a great hub for connecting people with community resources and some even offer programs for homebound users. 

Eat Well

The holidays are notorious for parties, family meals, and overindulging in delicious foods. But for people with SAD, these changes in dietary habits can trigger symptoms like emotional eating. As we enter the winter season, think about your food consumption and the role it plays in your mental health. Eating more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (e.g. salmon, walnuts), fresh produce, herbal teas, and high-fiber foods can all make a difference in combating the symptoms of seasonal depression. 

Stay Social

For many people, the colder months mean fewer social interactions or reasons to leave the house. But making an effort to connect with people can help lift your spirits and will play a big role in improving symptoms of SAD. Even something as simple as calling a family member just to talk, sending a letter to a friend, starting a new hobby, or going to a movie theater or local sporting event can be a motivator and beneficial to your mental health. 

Lend a Helping Hand

Another great way to stay social and find purpose is to be of service to others. Look for opportunities in your community to volunteer, donate, or lend a helping hand to a friend or neighbor. Putting a smile on someone’s face or hearing words of appreciation will improve your mood and outlook as you work through the challenges of seasonal depression.

Be Mindful of Harmful Triggers

If you’re prone to seasonal depression, think about the triggers that exacerbate your symptoms and make it a priority to avoid them. For most people, this includes binging behavior such as drinking alcohol, eating, and online/technology activities. It’s not always easy to control habits or urges, but learning self-care strategies and stress management techniques that work best for you can help you manage triggers and improve your quality of life.  

There is no cure for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but there are many things you can do to prevent or alleviate symptoms. If you find yourself feeling down this time of year and it’s affecting your daily life and interactions with family and friends, don’t put off getting help. Reach out to someone you trust to talk about your feelings or contact Insight Behavioral Health to schedule an appointment with a mental health professional. Our team offers a wide range of therapy, counseling, and other resources for mental health issues to help you be well year round.