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7 Ways To Manage Your Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

For some, the holiday season is a festive time of joy and happiness, filled with visits from family members and friends. For others, however, the stark change in the weather can bring a melancholy atmosphere to this time of year.

Unfortunately, as the season changes, so too can your mental health. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects about five percent of the adult population in the United States. Women tend to be more susceptible to it than men, and the disorder can last for up to 40 percent of the whole year

Since this condition is so prevalent, it may affect you or someone you know. Thankfully, there are treatment options available so SAD doesn’t have to disrupt your daily life or holiday plans. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression brought on by seasonal weather changes during the year. According to the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), SAD is classified as a Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. 

As with any form of depression, the effects can vary from one person to the next, and the intensity of those effects can change based on different conditions.

However, SAD is much different than just feeling sad or morose. It’s a mental condition that requires diagnosis and treatment from a medical or psychiatric professional. 

Some of the warning signs of SAD can include: 

  • Increased drowsiness, particularly during the day
  • Social withdrawal and increased sensitivity to negative reactions
  • Irritability
  • Heightened anxiety
  • Intense feelings of guilt or hopelessness
  • Inability to focus or concentrate on tasks
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or other positive activities
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight gain
A woman struggling with seasonal affective disorder stares out the window at the snow
how to deal with seasonal affective disorder

What Causes SAD?

SAD is often caused by chemical changes in the brain, which, in this case, are triggered by environmental factors.

As the days get shorter, there’s less sunlight, triggering a chemical reaction. One such reaction can be the creation of more melatonin, which your body creates when it’s dark to help you fall and stay asleep. 

It’s also believed that SAD may be caused by a lack of serotonin, which helps regulate your mood. Sunlight controls the levels of molecules that help maintain normal serotonin levels, but in people with SAD, this regulation does not function properly, resulting in decreased serotonin levels in the winter.

That said, there is no specific consensus on what causes SAD, as the unique triggers or conditions can vary depending on the person. However, as with all forms of depression, the primary catalyst is a chemical imbalance within the brain.

So, it’s not something that can be willed away, no matter how hard you try.

Who Is at Risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Generally speaking, women tend to be affected by SAD far more often than men. The condition also begins in young adulthood, as it is extremely rare to find in individuals younger than twenty. 

Also, those who already have mental disorders or chemical imbalances are at a much higher risk of developing SAD. Since there’s already an imbalance, environmental triggers can worsen their condition easily. 

Finally, your location may determine whether you experience SAD.

Typically, those living in northern regions experience the condition more frequently, thanks to shorter days and longer nights. However, those living in southern areas (i.e., Florida or Texas) may have a reduced risk since there’s more sunlight throughout the day. 

How Do You Know If You Have SAD?

There are numerous symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but you must be diagnosed by a licensed professional to verify if you have the condition.

Both physicians and mental health practitioners can diagnose SAD with different evaluations. These evaluations include: 

  • Physical Exam – The exam is to help determine if there is an underlying physiological issue that could be triggering a depressive episode. 
  • Psychological Exam – Usually, this evaluation is a questionnaire designed to understand your state of mind. The questions may ask about your thoughts, feelings, and behavioral changes. 
  • Lab Testing – Sometimes, a thyroid imbalance can affect your mood. A physician may order lab tests to see if there’s something else causing a chemical imbalance. 

7 Options for Dealing With Seasonal Affective Disorder

While a SAD diagnosis can be unfortunate, there are things you can do to mitigate or overcome the condition.

Some of these strategies you can do on your own, while others may require a prescription or referral from your primary care physician.

Here are seven ways to manage Seasonal Affective Disorder so it doesn’t derail your life. 

A sad image of someone carrying an umbrella by the sea during cold months
tips for handling SAD

1. Physical Activity

Let’s be honest – in the modern era, physical fitness is no longer a priority.

While there are many factors at play, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that up to 60 percent of US adults don’t get enough exercise. Even worse, around 25 percent of the population isn’t physically active at all. 

Thankfully, even a moderate amount of exercise can help improve the symptoms of SAD, among other conditions you may have. Here’s why physical activity can be so beneficial for mental health: 

  • Offers Control – Sometimes, depressive episodes can be triggered by a feeling of helplessness and a lack of control. However, when you’re exercising (walking, jogging, biking), you are in control over your body and your actions. While this may seem like a small step, it can have a big impact on your brain’s perception. 
  • Helps Manage Brain Chemicals – For some people, chemical imbalances are caused by physiological conditions, meaning they need medication to keep those imbalances in check. For others, exercise can help stimulate the release of serotonin, aka the “feel good” chemical. This is what happens during a “runner’s high,” but even small amounts of activity can help regulate these chemicals. 
  • Alleviate Underlying Conditions – In some cases, depression or SAD may be triggered by unknown or underlying physical conditions. Exercise is great for keeping your body in check as it promotes blood flow to every part of your internal system. Overall, exercise can help mitigate weight gain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar. So, if any of these conditions are affecting your mood, you could see immediate benefits. 

Want to learn more about the benefits of exercise for mental health? Check out this video:

2. Healthy Eating

As with exercise, many Americans aren’t getting enough nutritional value from their diets. Over 90 percent of adults consume too much sodium, sugar, and fat on a regular basis. Not only can poor nutrition lead to weight gain and other physical problems, but it can affect your mental health as well. 

Anecdotally, this makes sense if you’ve ever been hungry for an extended period.

The term “hangry” refers to someone who is irritable because of their hunger, but a lack of food can also trigger feelings of sadness, loneliness, and anxiety. 

The connection between what we eat and how we feel lies in the gastrointestinal tract. This is where serotonin is made before it goes up to the brain.

According to some research, people who consume “traditional” diets (like a Mediterranean or Japanese diet) are up to 35 percent less likely to develop symptoms of depression. 

Processed sugar, salt, and fat can lead to a variety of health conditions, and the more unhealthy your body is, the more likely you can develop conditions like SAD.

So, switching to a diet with whole fruits and vegetables and fewer refined ingredients may help boost your mood and regulate your brain chemicals. 

For more, this video highlights how the Mediterranean diet specifically can help:

3. Increased Exposure to Sunlight

Although there isn’t “hard” evidence to illustrate an exact cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the sun seems to be a major factor.

Getting less sunlight during the day can affect your brain and may lead to depressive episodes. 

Thankfully, one of the easiest ways to alleviate this problem is to be out in the sun as much as possible. All too often, we spend most of our time inside, bathed in artificial light. So, spending as little as 20 or 30 minutes outside can stimulate the brain to create more serotonin and less melatonin. 

In fact, some studies have shown a direct correlation between sun exposure and a lower risk of depression. Our bodies still use the sun to help regulate various functions and internal systems, so a lack of sunlight can throw everything off balance. 

4. Light Box Therapy

While sunlight is the best option, it’s not always available during the winter (hence the problem). To supplement the lack of sunlight, you can use a light box. This treatment is not evaluated by the FDA, but the box is designed to mimic the sun, so it often has a similar effect to being outside. 

What’s even more remarkable is that you don’t need a ton of light to feel positive effects. As few as 10,000 lux for 30 minutes each morning can help reverse the effects of SAD. That much light is equivalent to a cloudy day, meaning you don’t have to flood your living area with super bright lights. 

Here’s how to incorporate light box therapy into your daily routine: 

  • Choose the Right Light Box – It should shine with at least 10,000 lux and not produce much UV light, if at all. This way, you don’t have to worry about skin damage. 
  • Use it First Thing – The best time to use a light box is within the first hour of waking up. While you can use it later in the day, the effects won’t be as substantial. You only need to use the light for about 20 or 30 minutes at a time. 
  • Don’t Look at the Light – Light boxes can be pretty bright, so if you stare into them, you could damage your eyes. Instead, it’s better to use the box while you’re doing other tasks (such as getting ready) so you don’t look at it directly. 

I currently live in a very sunny part of the world, so I don’t have a need for a light box, but there was a time when I could’ve benefitted greatly from them. When I lived in Brooklyn, NY, I remember waking up in the dark, walking through the slush to my job as a teacher, and then not seeing the street again until the sun had set, often before 5 p.m.

It sucked.

So although I don’t have personal experience with any light boxes to share, but this one looks to be fairly popular across many review sites and pretty reasonably priced.

5. Psychotherapy

There are two primary methods of psychotherapy that can help treat the worst effects of SAD—talk therapy and cognitive behavioral treatment. Both options are viable, although you may discover that one works better for you than the other. 

The purpose of psychotherapy is to help you identify and explain the thoughts you have when you’re in a depressive episode. This way, you can understand what triggers those feelings and learn how to manage them more effectively. 

These treatments may also provide you with positive coping mechanisms. Typically, people tend to lean into negative coping strategies that can worsen the problem (e.g., sleeping in, overeating, or avoiding interactions).

By understanding what’s going on inside your mind, you can develop healthier habits to minimize the effects of SAD. 

6. Medication

Because depression is caused by a chemical imbalance, sometimes the best way to treat the condition is through antidepressant medication.

Usually, this option is reserved for individuals whose bodies have trouble making or regulating the different chemicals in their brains. If you try other strategies like exercise and light therapy and aren’t finding relief, it may be time to talk to your doctor about additional options.

Some examples of these medications include fluoxetine, citalopram, and sertraline.

Overall, make sure to talk with your doctor or mental health practitioner to see if medication is the best option. Sometimes, it can have a transformative effect. In other cases, it may not be necessary or have much of an effect at all. 

7. New Hobbies or Skills

Depression can often be a self-defeating cycle.

You feel depressed, so you don’t do anything, making you feel more depressed, and so on. One way to break this cycle is to stay active, but you can also stimulate your brain with new hobbies or skills. 

As a rule, those with hobbies tend to experience lower rates of depression, isolation, and anxiety. This is particularly true for those with hobbies that involve other people. In many cases, positive social interactions can boost your mood and help you feel better. 

Hobbies may also be a positive coping mechanism. Stress can often trigger depression and lethargy, but a hobby can help you manage your stress levels more efficiently. Additionally, if you’re learning a new skill, that can stimulate the brain and help regulate its chemical reactions. 

Overall, the mind is complicated, and what may work for one person might not for someone else. That said, you don’t have to let Seasonal Affective Disorder take over your life or affect your mood. Proactive treatments like these give you the power to control your body and mitigate the worst effects of this condition. 

Want to dive deeper into SAD?

My Experience Learning How To Deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder

I used to live in very cold regions of the US where sunlight became very sparse several months out of the year. It was cold, dreary, and my job as a teacher meant I rarely (if ever) could get outside during the day to get sunlight.

On top of that, the job was stressful. I also struggled with untreated depression and anxiety and drank way too much to try to deal with it.

I remember feeling like I had to peel myself out of bed every morning. It felt like being in a constant state of “just get through the day.” But I always figured I could suffer through it.

Even now that I live in a sunnier part of the world, I still catch my mood tanking unexpectedly in November and December.

The difference now is I am much more proactive about managing the symptoms. I get some exercise five days out of the week (even if it’s just a thirty-minute walk). In 2016, I quit drinking for good and started taking my mental and physical health more seriously.

And I still have to work with my doctor to make sure my mental health is in good shape (as much as I can get it there).

This is all to say that dealing with depression and SAD is often a “do this and” situation. Mental health is complicated. Try different strategies and see what works for you.

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