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11 Ways to Beat Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Follow these expert-backed tips to help you cope with seasonal affective disorder, from spending time with animals to positive self-talk.

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Ways to help alleviate SAD symptoms

It’s officially spring. The flowers are starting to bloom and the weather is a bit warmer. But, if you are feeling down, there may be an unexpected reason for that: Seasonal affective disorder (also called SAD). The mood disorder can occur during any seasonal change. It's most common in the winter months, but summer seasonal affective disorder is a thing too. It's more than just the winter blues—SAD can be debilitating and interfere with daily life. About 5% of people in the U.S. experience SAD, and it is more common in women than men, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

In the meantime, whether or not you think SAD is to blame for your depression, moodiness, exhaustion, or irritability, these expert tips may help.

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Spend some time with animals


If the trending videos on the Internet of adorable pets aren't proof enough, pets have healing potential. In fact, experts agree that the unconditional love and support pets provide can help alleviate depression, stress, and loneliness. "If you are a pet owner, take time each day to touch, play, or chat with your animal," suggests Mayra Mendez, PhD, psychotherapist and program coordinator at Providence Saint John's Child & Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. If you don't have a pet, volunteer at your local animal shelter or even try cuddling with a stuffed animal or furry blanket for a few moments, she says. 

Maintain a regular fitness routine

Exercise is the most effective, natural means for combating the blues and restoring health to the body. "The body's designed to be rewarded with feel-good chemicals called endorphins in response to movement," says Robin H-C, life coach, behaviorist and bestselling author of Thinking Your Way to Happy. "These chemicals create a sense of well-being, have an analgesic effect on the body, aid in relaxation, and enhance one's ability to deal with life's challenges and stressors." If you don't have a regular exercise routine, this is a great reason to start one.

"Winter is a good time to join an exercise group, gym activities or another type of program that'll help you create a regular routine and have support in maintaining it," says Jennifer Horton, certified coach and life success consultant, Cottondale, Florida. While it might seem counteractive to go outside in the winter, breathing in fresh air and getting natural light will have a positive impact on your mood, too, so bundle up and head out for a soul stroll when you can. (Here are 8 rules for exercising outdoors in winter.)

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Stay away from alcohol and caffeine

When dealing with any mood disorders, it's best to avoid substances that are liable to amplify the symptoms. "Alcohol, processed sugar, caffeine, sedatives, and stimulating drugs of any kind will mess with your biochemistry and challenge your mental well-being," says H-C. "It's in your best interest—in the winter months as well as year-round—to find natural, healthy ways to enhance your mood either through exercise or pursuing hobbies that make you happy." (Here are even more little ways to feel happier every day.)

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Redecorate and organize


Whether it's switching up the furniture in your home or cleaning out a closet and donating stuff you don't use anymore, decluttering your life physically can have an empowering effect mentally as well. "This strategy activates your creative juices and increases the chance that small changes may bring a greater sense of purpose and value to your life in the moment," says Mendez. "It also stimulates a sense of success by reinforcing acceptance of creative implementation and opens the way for new perspectives or attitudes, which may be particularly helpful to someone who feels stuck in the drudgery of life."

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Add some color to your daily life


Chromotherapy, the system of using color as a means of alternative medicine and healing, has been around since ancient times. Today, researchers are able to analyze the ways in which color and light are able to affect and improve psychological behavior. "I always try to make sure to have either fresh colorful flowers in my home, wear bright, vibrant polish, or even a red lipstick to up my mood," says Erin Stutland, life and fitness coach in New York City and founder of Shrink Session, who has SAD. "It doesn't have to be dramatic, just something to give me a boost. I have to say, all of these things work like a charm for me."

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Have a good laugh


When you were a child, laughing was a staple of your everyday routine because it made you feel good. While you might have less to laugh at nowadays, the act can still provide that same mood-boosting effect it did back then. And it's good for you, too. "When we laugh, our body releases positive body chemicals that reduce the brain's perception of pain in the body," says H-C. Be it a funny movie, surfing YouTube videos, or being playful with those closest to you, laughter heals. "Even faking laughter triggers the release of these happy juices in your body."

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Indulge in your favorite hobbies


"When you're feeling down, do something that takes you away from your overwhelming feelings and brings you to a happier place, even if only for a few minutes," says Mendez. "This might include doing a craft, reading a book on your wish list, going to the movies, cooking your favorite meal or treat, looking up a new recipe, or listening to an inspirational message." Doing something of interest offers you the opportunity to feel in control and take care of yourself. Create your own special memories, practices, traditions and rituals, and break away from the conventional, predictable routines.

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Volunteer


"Not only is giving always a mood-booster, but volunteering can also provide the opportunity for interactions that might otherwise have been neglected or avoided," Mendez says. Programs like serving food at homeless shelters, volunteering to wrap gifts over the holidays or donating time to local community events such as parades all help reduce isolation, increase engagement in purposeful and meaningful activities, and provide an opportunity to positively impact others' lives. (Watch out for these silent signs that you may have SAD.)

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Book a winter getaway to a warm spot


If it's in your budget, even a few days away from the daily grind of life, ideally in tropical, sunny, or even just a warmer and brighter climate can have a big impact on your overall state of being. "Vacations to warmer climates allow you to regain perspective and reconnect to the warmth and light you're craving," says Stutland. "It doesn't have to be extravagant or costly and there are always great deals on the Internet for weekend trips to all-inclusive resorts." Your mental health is worth this purchase if you can swing it.

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Practice positive self-talk


When SAD hits, your thoughts and emotions tend to skew towards the negative. You may have a myriad of positive experiences throughout the day. However, you can still end up focusing and even obsessing about the one negative thing that happened. That's why many counselors utilize cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. CBT offers practical, goal-oriented techniques that help clients recognize and change unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors that keep them locked in a chronic cycle of depression.

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Utilize light therapy


Light has the ability to affect our biological rhythms and hormonal balance, our moods and energy levels. There are even indications that therapy, specifically light therapy, can raise the effectiveness of medication regimens and that different wavelengths of light affect our minds in different ways. "Lately, I've been using a Philips Blue Light in the morning for about 20 to 30 minutes, which uses LED smart bulbs to simulate natural light, whether it be crisp white light reminding you of a spring breeze, the warm white light of a summer sun, or the ice cool daylight of winter," says Stutland. "Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD." Use white light, 10 thousand lux, about 30 mins per day, via a SAD lamp. (Here are the 10 best light therapy lamps on Amazon.)

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Medically reviewed by Ashley Matskevich, MD, on April 13, 2020