14 Little Ways You Can Avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder
Don't let this seasonal mood disorder get you down. Read on for expert-approved strategies for getting through the winter months, whether you have winter blues or seasonal affective disorder.
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Don’t get SAD
If you suddenly feel a drop in energy and happiness levels when summer comes to a halting stop, you’re far from alone. The winter blues are common. However, for some people, it’s even more serious. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that can lay you low. To be diagnosed with SAD, you generally need to have major depression that occurs seasonally—either in the winter or summer—for at least two years or more. The malady is not uncommon, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health: Nearly one in 10 Americans experience it, but it can range from 1% of people in sunnier areas, like Florida, to 9% in states like Alaska.
“SAD is caused by the disruption of hormones, such as serotonin and melatonin, which influence our sleep cycles, mood regulation and overall feeling of well being,” explains Ariane Machin, PhD, clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Conscious Coaching Collective. “It can impact how you function during sleeping and waking hours, causing you to feel more drowsy, lethargic, and moody more than normal.” Whether or not you’re experiencing SAD or simply someone who prefers sunshine and warmer weather, there are plenty of ways you can boost your mood and shake off the blues during the off-season. Here, experts share their best-kept secrets to avoiding the condition during the dreary winter months.
Create an action plan
If you’re someone who’s used to feeling less happy and energized during the fall and winter months or you’re been diagnosed with SAD, you’ll likely know what to expect. You may also, however, experience anticipatory anxiety or moodiness knowing what is to come. “Use this time to reach out to your support network, identify strategies that have worked before and get your action plan in place,” says Dr. Machin. “Reach out to those that care about you and share what you might be experiencing.” She adds that even once the winter months have started, it is not too late.
Countless studies have found that regular exercise can ease depression—almost as well as prescription medications. And research suggests it can be as effective as medication for mild or moderate depression. So it’s no surprise that activity may help prevent the symptoms of SAD. “Exercise releases the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, thus, it can help improve mood and overall health,” explains Dr. Machin. “This can combat common symptoms of SAD, such as moodiness and lethargy.” The good news is you don’t have to be an avid runner or cyclist to help ease symptoms of SAD—you just have to get moving. “Anything that involves movement and makes you feel good about yourself and your health would be sufficient,” Dr. Machin adds. “You can also involve a personal trainer or engage professionals at a gym if you wanted more support, but even at-home workouts, daily walking or anything outdoors would be great intervention strategies!” Just check out what exercise can do for your brain.
Talk it out
If you know you are prone to experiencing significant symptoms of SAD, Dr. Machin suggests connecting with a mental health practitioner prior to the onset of the winter months. Even if you wait until the winter months, it’s not too late. “Talk to your insurance company, locate a provider in-network and schedule an appointment,” she says. “Your mental health provider can be an important source of support, and help you in other ways, such as identifying your unique strategies that can be helpful in countering the effects of SAD.” Learn why cognitive behavioral therapy is such an effective way to treat SAD.
Stay connected to others
One thing that may help stave off SAD is to stay in contact with the world around you. Make the effort because isolation will only make you feel more depressed and fatigued. Aimee Bernstein, psychotherapist, mindfulness-in-action teacher, and author of Stress Less, Achieve More, suggests that you identify who is in your support network and reaching out to them. “Research shows that those with a larger support network can make behavioral changes easier,” she says. “Create an agreement with your support network to spend time together doing fun things, especially during the winter months, that will shift your mood and energize you.” Here are 50 ways to ward off loneliness.
Don’t believe everything you hear—or think
Instead of allowing thoughts and feelings of doubt, worry, and fear to consume you, Dr. Bernstein suggests replacing them with happy thoughts. “Research shows that recalling happy times raises the serotonin levels in the brain,” she says. “If the old thoughts return, say ‘cancel’ to the old programming and switch again to the happier channel in your mind.” The more practiced you are in shifting channels, the more, she says, you will feel a difference in your mood, perceptions, and interpretations of what you perceive. Need help with that? Here are 50 tiny changes that can make you a happier person.
Listen to music that uplifts you
Dr. Bernstein recommends allowing your body to move to the sound of music—and don’t be critical of yourself. “Sway, let your hands be free and move wherever they want and whichever way they want,” she says. “Allow the music to take you over and don’t be surprised if you find yourself dancing!” Feel like singing along even though you can’t carry a tune? Great! Allow your sense of spaciousness to increase and lift your mood.
Try a light therapy box
If might sound strange at first, but these light therapy boxes, which beams artificial light that mimics sunshine and natural light, can be helpful in treating symptoms of SAD. “The theory suggests that spending more time in this type of light deflects the immersion of the winter months and helps stimulate your body’s circadian rhythms while suppressing its natural release of melatonin (which makes you want to sleep more),” Dr. Machin explains. “Use the lightbox first thing in the morning and for at least a few weeks during the winter months.” It’s best to talk to your doctor before purchasing one for your home, as he or she can prescribe you the right exposure levels and usage for your individual symptoms. Here’s how to fight back against the symptoms of SAD.
Take up positive journaling
When anyone is feeling symptoms of depression of any kind, it can be difficult to notice or pay attention to the good or even normal things happening around you. For this reason, Ryan Engelstad, a therapist based in Princeton, New Jersey, often suggests that his patients take up a journaling practice. “As part of this practice, I’ll ask them to identify three things they are grateful for, three things they like about themselves (positive affirmations) or three things they are looking forward to—or all of the above!” he says. “Over time this can help restore the balance of positive versus negative thoughts.” (Here are the 10 best bullet journals on Amazon.)
In addition to activities like positive journaling, you can also practice basic meditation to calm your mind, along with your anxieties and feelings of depression. Research shows that mindful meditation may even boost your serotonin levels, the hormone that’s associated with feelings of pleasure. “Meditation teaches how to shift your attention from the incessant thoughts in your head into your center of gravity, which is a couple of inches below your belly button,” says Dr. Bernstein. Here’s how the countries with the world’s longest winters deal with SAD.
Avoid potential triggers
While it can be easy to fall into “comfort traps,” or activities that might feel good in the moment, but later contribute to your feelings of depression, experts agree that it’s best to think ahead and keep certain triggers off the menu. “This includes all types of bingeing behaviors,” says Engelstad. He recommends trying your best to abstain from alcohol or drug use, don’t overeat, and don’t overdo TV streaming services. “These activities can be enjoyable in small controlled doses but can quickly spiral out of control if someone is feeling anxious or depressed,” he says. (Check out the story of one woman who tried Dry January and it saved her life.)
Get some sunshine
The sun might not feel warm in the fall and winter, but it’s still there—and still provides you with vitamin D that can boost your mood the way it does during the warmer months. “One of the main contributors to SAD includes a lack of natural light, therefore, it would make sense to optimize the amount of sunshine you do get during your day,” Dr. Machin says. “Make an effort to keep your blinds open and try to keep your indoor environment bright—anything to mimic natural light and the ‘brightness’ that accompanies it.” This, she says, can combat the effects of excessive darkness that comes about in the winter months. Check out these eight tips for exercising in winter.
Take a vacation
There’s a good reason so many families and individuals choose the winter months to take their vacation. Especially for those who live in northern climates that experience long winters and shorter summers, a winter vacation can do the trick to tide you over. “Keep in mind that the winter will be over (sooner than later) and there will be more light in the near future,” says Dr. Machin. “In the meantime, take a vacation to a sunny place during the darkest times in your geographic area and do whatever you need to do to buffer the effects for you.” Need ideas? Check out these tips for fun and active travel tips.
Maintain routine as much as possible
“Sometimes when we begin to feel exceptionally fatigued, we may begin to slip out of our normal everyday activities and begin to sleep more (though there may be an experience of restlessness at night),” says Dr. Machin. “For example, we may also notice ourselves isolating more and feeling more down and overwhelmed about everything.” Instead of giving in to those feelings and sleeping more or spending more time on the couch, she recommends making a conscious effort to keep a regular schedule. “This will keep you engaged with the world, family, friends, and co-workers, as well as optimize your exposure to whatever natural light does occur during the day, and engaged with.” This forced schedule, Dr. Machin explains, will encourage individuals to stay involved so there is a reduced likelihood of experiencing severe symptoms of SAD.
Talk to a mental health professional about treatment
People who have SAD may opt to take an antidepressant after consulting with a mental health professional, says Paulette Kouffman Sherman, psychologist and author of The Book of Sacred Baths. These medications, work to balance the chemicals in your brain that affect your mood and emotions. “Taking medication should be nothing to feel ashamed or badly about as we need to keep in mind that identifying that we need help and seeking it out is what takes courage,” says Dr. Machin. “If you are not sure if this is an appropriate way to combat symptoms of SAD, make an appointment with her primary care physician who can assist you and give you insights about this option and whether or not it would be a good fit for your situation.” Next, learn the things psychologists wish you knew about SAD.
- National Institutes of Mental Health: Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Ariane Machin, PhD, clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Conscious Coaching Collective
- Aimee Bernstein, psychotherapist, mindfulness-in-action teacher, and author of Stress Less, Achieve More
- Ryan Engelstad, a therapist based in Princeton, New Jersey
- Paulette Kouffman Sherman, PsyD, psychologist and author of The Book of Sacred Baths