I experienced a rather severe case of “winter blues” a few years ago. It was my first winter back home in Chicago, which was a huge difference from the winters I became used to in the relatively balmy and sunny Missouri that I had experienced the last four years while in college. The days are short, the sunlight is at a bare minimum, and the temperatures are frigid, making my lack of desire to go outside reach an all-time high. It’s dark by the time you’re done with work, which means it’s harder to find motivation to keep up with regular weekday routines, and the cold weather makes you feel stuck inside.
It turns out “winter blues” is not just a case of cabin fever, and I’m not the only one who experiences it. In fact, it’s pretty common. Seasonal depression, also called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is “a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer,” as per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 5% of U.S. adults experience SAD. If you feel extra anxious or depressed during the colder months, you’re not alone, and you deserve to find help. Going into this year’s winter, I asked the experts what to do to help with SAD symptoms so we can all be prepared and enjoy the season.
What is seasonal depression and who does it affect?
Shorter days and less sunlight affect the brain’s chemical balance
According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD is connected to a biochemical imbalance that occurs in the brain due to shorter daytime hours and less sunlight. This can cause a circadian rhythm shift during the change in seasons. “The main contributor to seasonal depression is a lack of exposure to natural light,” agreed Madeline Lucas, LCSW, a therapist and clinical content manager at Real. “This can impact our mood and contribute to depression because the lack of natural light disrupts our biological clock, otherwise known as our circadian rhythm, that runs on a 24-hour schedule. The lack of natural light in winter can throw off this clock.”
It’s more common in women, young adults, and people with major depression and/or bipolar disorder
While anyone can experience SAD, some studies have found it is most commonly experienced by women, teenagers, and people who have previously experienced depression or bipolar disorder symptoms. A study published in Depression Research and Treatment noted that women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD and it most often occurs in those between 18-30 years old. According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of depression might be worse during the winter months if you have been previously diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder.
How can you tell if you might be experiencing seasonal affective disorder?
Since SAD is a form of depression that comes in a seasonal pattern, many of the symptoms are the same as non-seasonal depression, like feeling hopeless or worthless, losing interest in activities you’ve liked in the past, appetite or weight fluctuations, and struggles with concentration that start in the fall or early winter and subside in the spring and summer. Lucas cited other symptoms like social withdrawal, fatigue, change in sleep patterns, change in appetite, persistent sadness, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension or pain, and more. “These symptoms can show up across a spectrum, but if you are noticing these symptoms more frequently over a period of a few weeks in a row, it may be worth looking into if you’re experiencing some seasonal depression,” she suggested.
What are some tools to get through it?
Note: Always talk to your doctor and seek therapy first about the most beneficial course of action for you. In many cases, doctors, therapists, and psychiatrists may decide medication or a certain kind of therapy is right for you. No matter what personalized plan of action you and your health care team have come up with, I asked experts for some tips and tricks to try as well. Try them for yourself (in addition to seeking therapy) and talk to your doctor about a SAD plan that’s right for you.
Get to know what works for you
While there are some tips that can help with the body’s adjustment to the seasonal changes, the most important way to get through seasonal depression is to identify and prioritize what makes you feel your best, and then make sure to do those things often. “Coping is not one size fits all,” Lucas said. “When it comes to coping, it can at first be trial and error. Maybe going for a run outside helps you, or maybe you’re more of an organize-my-pantry kind of person when you need to self-soothe. Allow yourself to try different things out and see what feels supportive and in alignment with you.”
Does a nap make you feel restored or unproductive? Is going for a walk something that makes you feel energized or something you dread? Does reading a good book or making plans with friends feel more fulfilling? Find a few activities that soothe you and boost your mood, and then fit them into your schedule consistently.
If sunshine is limited where you are from October until March, light therapy might be a huge help. “Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is an activity where you sit near a light box for exposure to bright light immediately after you wake up,” explained Amber Weiss, LMHC, NCC, THTC, a psychotherapist and founder of Transformative Mindset, a psychotherapy private practice located in New York City. “Light therapy can work by mimicking sunlight, therefore altering brain chemicals linked to feelings and mood.” If you do get sunshine, open your blinds and get in direct sunlight during the day (especially first thing in the morning). If every day is grayer than the next, opt for a light box that mimics the sun’s rays. Talk to your doctor about the right light box for you.
Fill your schedule
“If you are displaying signs of SAD, schedules are vital, as you want to stick to your routine, not your mood,” said Rachel Cavallaro, PsyD, MAC, a licensed psychologist with Thriveworks. “The best things to regularly incorporate are exercise and social activities. Incorporate workouts and have recurring meetups throughout the winter to significantly reduce the impact of seasonal depression.” A full schedule of things to look forward to can help your mood and energy levels, but the key is to fill your schedule with things you look forward to. For example, make plans with the friend who always makes you laugh, not the friend who gossips whenever you’re together, and sign up for workout classes like yoga or dance that will make you feel good instead of the HIIT series you’ll dread.
Keep up a consistent sleep schedule
Since SAD can be caused by a disruption to your internal clock, do what you can to balance it by keeping a consistent sleep schedule. “Go to bed and get up at the same time every day to reset your circadian rhythms, try not to nap for longer than 20 minutes (if necessary), avoid caffeine after 3 p.m., limit blue light screen time at night, and get physical activity early in the day when the sun is stronger,” suggested Tralee Johnson, MA, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist.
Vitamin D supplementation
Since we mainly get vitamin D levels from sunlight, a lack of sunlight can lead to low vitamin D levels, which impacts mood, fatigue, and more symptoms of seasonal depression. “Checking vitamin D status and supplementing as appropriate is often helpful with SAD,” suggested Dr. James Greenblatt, MD, chief medical officer at Walden Behavioral Care and best-selling author. “Doses can easily range from 2,000 to 5,000 international units to bring levels fully into the normal range, depending on each body’s needs.” Ask your doctor whether or not vitamin D supplementation would be the right treatment for you before trying it out for yourself.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle
Just like any other symptom, seasonal depression can be a sign that something’s off in the body. Therefore, taking care of your body can help reduce the effects of SAD. For example, exercise and physical activity have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Exercise or physical activity can improve mood in both standard depression and seasonal affective disorder,” Dr. Greenblatt agreed. “Also, evaluating and treating other nutritional deficiencies should also be considered, including iron, vitamin B12, folate, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids, so get in a variety of healthy foods with these nutrients.” A healthy body means a healthy mind, and taking care of yourself in general can help your body adapt to changes in the season.
PSA: You don’t have to (and shouldn’t!) set high expectations for yourself in order to feel like you have a successful season. In fact, giving yourself compassion and allowing yourself whatever you need are the best ways to cope with SAD symptoms. “Allow yourself to start small when it comes to coping,” Lucas suggested. “Don’t think you can make it outside today? Try opening your window just a few inches. Feel like getting out of bed close to your alarm is impossible? Try sitting up in bed and stretching your legs out first. You’ll set yourself up for failure if you say you’ll run eight miles each morning and bake gingerbread cookies every evening. Those things aren’t going to be what helps us get through—being kind to ourselves will.” Ask your body what it needs, prioritize whatever feels best for you, and give yourself grace to adjust goals, routines, and habits.
If you think you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, it’s important to reach out and get help. See your doctor, get in contact with a therapist, and/or talk to a close friend or family member. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions, get help immediately.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
Crisis Text Line: text CONNECT to 741741