Suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder? Here are 30 Ways to Treat This Depression.
The days get shorter. The temperatures drop. And the clouds and snow roll in. With all these seasonal changes, you may be seeing a substantial change in your mood, too.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 5% of American adults experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that occurs with a seasonal pattern. Although a rare form of SAD can be experienced during the summer months, the most common form of the disorder begins with fall, when the days become shorter and there’s less daylight, and it continues through spring.
The symptoms can include persistently depressed mood, having low energy, unintentional weight changes, decreased or increased appetite, sleeping too much or not enough, feelings of worthlessness, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation.
“As we enter into our second fall and winter season of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals may be at an even greater risk for developing SAD,” says Dr. Elizabeth Stanley, DNP, PMHNP-BC, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with the mental health platform Mood Health. “Changes brought about by the pandemic, such as isolation due to working from home and disrupted holiday traditions, can certainly impact mood and overall well-being.”
More women than men usually have SAD, and populations in the northern states and Canada tend to have it more prevalently.
“Some researchers and estimates suggest that as much as 15 to 20% of the population suffers some occasional or milder form of SAD,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RDN, a Doctor of Public Health and registered dietitian.
Whether you’ve been formerly diagnosed or suspect that you have SAD, Dr. Stanley says that the goal of SAD treatment is always remission, “meaning that we hope the symptoms go away and you return to your previous level of functioning.”
Lara Schuster Effland, LICSW, CEDS, Clinical Lead and Therapist with Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center, says that even with regular treatment, “it may not be possible to change this disorder, due to your genetics, life circumstances, and environment.” But she adds that you can gain knowledge, identify your options, and make effective decisions based on what you know about yourself and how to help manage the disorder.
“Short of literally moving closer to the equator, which is unrealistic and not a full guarantee for good health, there are many lifestyle and therapeutic approaches that are worth trying and utilizing,” Bazilian says.
Here are 30 approaches you can try to minimize, or even eliminate, symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder treatments
Antidepressants such as SSRIs and SNRIs are considered “first line treatment for depression and can be very effective at treating the symptoms of SAD,” Dr. Stanley says. “These medications work at the neurotransmitter level to reduce symptoms of depression.”
These medications can be used individually or in combination with other medical approaches “to a person’s overall health picture,” Bazilian says. Speak with your doctor to find a medication that works best for you and your lifestyle.
Use light box therapy
Bazilian says that researchers estimate that between 60% to 80% of people with SAD benefit from light therapy. This intentional exposure to artificial bright light that mimics the sun, also known as a light box or “happy light,” works best as soon as you feel SAD symptoms in the fall and should be done early in the morning.
Light therapy can balance the body’s natural rhythms, which can become disrupted during the winter months. Talk to your doctor to find a light box that will work well for you, and ask for guidance on how long you should sit by the light each day. Many people aim for 30 minutes every morning.
Consider dawn simulation
Another form of light therapy is dawn simulation, which, according to Dr. Stanley, does not use a light box. Instead, it’s a simulator that gradually increases your indoor light exposure in the morning in an effort to simulate the natural light pattern of dawn.
Make vitamin D a priority
Bazilian says that several studies have shown an association between low levels of vitamin D and mood. It’s always a good idea to have your vitamin D level tested with the help of your doctor, and as a result, you can ensure that your level is optimal through supplements (ask your doctor how much you should be supplementing) and dietary choices. Bazilian says that food sources include fortified milk, egg yolks, and mushrooms.
Stay away from ultra-processed foods
An anti-inflammatory diet has been shown to alleviate symptoms of mood disorders, and SAD is no exception. Frequently, highly processed foods can create inflammation in the body, which in turn can worsen your SAD symptoms.
“It can feel convenient and comforting to eat some of the ultra-processed foods available to us, but those are often higher in pro-inflammatory sugars and fats, higher in sodium, and lower in important nutrients that come from a more whole-foods, simple-ingredients diet,” Bazilian says.
Turn to talk therapy
Various forms of talk therapy can be helpful at treating symptoms of SAD. “A cognitive-behavioral approach has been shown to be particularly effective,” Dr. Stanley says.
Take part in a Functional Assessment
Schuster Effland shares that something called a “Functional Assessment” may be helpful for your SAD treatment. With your therapist’s assistance, this approach can help you identify how you ended up in a negative mood, situation, or place.
“You can map out your thoughts, emotions, urges, behaviors, actions, and how they’ve created positive or negative thoughts,” she says. “Coming to understand the drivers and purpose behind your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can be very helpful.” After that, you’ll identify effective ways to prevent a negative pattern from happening and practice it until you can do it naturally.
The nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds “play critical roles in being anti-inflammatory,” Bazilian says. If you can’t track down fresh produce in the winter, or if it doesn’t fit your budget, she adds that you can always turn to frozen fruits and vegetables along with jarred and canned varieties that are low in sugar, salt, and sodium.
Bazilian advises, “Have a vegetable and/or fruit at every meal, a soup or vegetable/salad every day, and think about vegetables and/or fruit for at least one of your snacks daily.”
Increase omega-3s in your diet
Omega-3s, or fatty acids, have been proven to lower symptoms of depression. They can be consumed by eating cold water fish or plant sources, like walnuts or chia seeds.
While you may not be up for a tough workout (you are suffering from depression, after all, so this is a totally natural feeling), any kind of movement is a plus.
“Getting your body moving has been shown to have a positive impact on your mental health” Dr. Stanley says. “Engaging in regular, joyful movement can help with habit forming and can also improve your mood.”
Get active by walking, hiking, or running or set up a home gym so you don’t have to drag yourself to a gym outside your home. Even just five minutes can make a difference, something to aim for on your difficult days.
Take a vacation
It might not be possible for you to take a vacation, but if you’re able to, “it can help to break up your darker, colder months,” Schuster Effland says. Plan a trip to a sunny, warm place right in the middle of winter.
“It’s something to look forward to and also something that will improve your mood, whether that be the natural reward you receive from a vacation or the mood alleviation from the sun and relaxation,” Schuster Effland explains.
Reduce alcohol consumption
Bazilian says that alcohol is a known depressant, “which can make mood worse or depression harder.” She adds that if you’re currently experiencing SAD or trying to minimize your risk of developing symptoms, watching, limiting, or even avoiding alcohol altogether may be a healthy approach.
Studies say that getting outside can be a natural mood booster. Appreciating nature can reduce stress levels and depressive symptoms, as Dr. Stanley notes. She recommends walking daily to enjoy the benefits.
Prep for colder weather
Planning for the winter season can help you feel comforted and more in control as you anticipate SAD symptoms. Bazilian says that this prepping can include bringing out your puffer jackets and cozy sweaters, gathering good, nutritious recipes, and building some healthy practices ahead of time so that you can “help prevent or combat some of the seasonal impact of less daylight in the fall and winter months to come.”
Limit blue light exposure
Dr. Stanley says that since many people spend their entire workday looking at screens, it’s important to try to limit exposure to blue light directly before bed.
“Excessive exposure to screens, including cellphones, tablets, computers, and TV screens, can be harmful to our natural sleep patterns and circadian rhythms,” she says. “It’s more important than ever to be mindful about this in an effort to protect our mental health.”
Maintain a sleep schedule
One thing that can alleviate SAD symptoms is to maintain a regular bedtime and wake-up time.
“Having consistency with your nighttime and daytime routines can be helpful in making sure we are having regular exposure to both light and darkness, which is important for maintaining our circadian rhythm,” Dr. Stanley says.
Keep an eating schedule, too
Bazilian says that eating at regular intervals, or roughly at the same times each day, can positively impact SAD. This includes snacks, and it can be beneficial to heed your portions as well. Aim for “moderate,” portions, which Bazilian calls “not too little, not too much.”
Pointing to a 2020 study, she says that people with SAD engage in more binge eating, emotional eating, and have more cravings for high-carbohydrate foods, but these are things that can be detriment to your overall mood.
“Relaxation and mindfulness techniques can be helpful for many different mental health issues, including SAD,” Dr. Stanley says. “Being present in the moment and using techniques such as meditation and guided imagery to help build these skills can ultimately help with resilience.”
If you’d like to practice more mindfulness to combat SAD symptoms, Schuster Effland recommends the book Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat Zinn.
Soak up outdoor light
Even on cloudy days when sunlight is hard to come by, it can be helpful get out for some outdoor time. Bazilian says that real exposure to any kind of sunlight is different than being indoors and protected by windows, which bend or reduce actual light exposure.
Boost your melatonin
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates circadian rhythm, something that tends to suffer during the winter months when people are experiencing SAD. In addition to considering taking a melatonin supplement before bed (ask your doctor about dosing), Bazilian says that there are natural forms of melatonin you can eat as well, such as walnuts and tart cherries.
Seek out positive activities
“Engage in positive activities,” Dr. Stanley says. “Sometimes when we are struggling with symptoms of SAD, it can feel overwhelming to engage in activities that we used to find pleasurable and enjoyable. However, sometimes engaging in those activities can help activate a more positive internal response and help with alleviating symptoms.”
Going through depression can make anyone feel stressed out, but unfortunately, stress can make SAD symptoms feel even worse. Bazilian recommends finding small ways to manage stress each day, seeking out practices that ease stress so you can manage, cope with, and prevent or reduce symptoms.
Do some yoga
Schuster Effland says that it can be helpful to start a movement class like yoga, dance, or Tai Chi, something that can create an “active mindfulness practice.” It can also foster soothing breathwork and inspire you to work through physical challenges and discomforts.
“It’s best to try something restorative, gentle, and instructive if you’re just starting out,” she adds.
Plan out meals
“Planning meals and snacks can help establish an eating pattern that can potentially help minimize SAD symptoms arising or severity,” Bazilian says. “Since serotonin and dopamine activity play a role in depression and related disorders, you can ensure that there are foods that help balance levels and have the potential to help.”
She suggests serotonin-stimulating foods that contain tryptophan, like turkey, cheese, eggs, pineapple, fish, and whole-grain carbohydrates.
Switch up your routine
“Change up your routine,” Schuster Effland says. “Nature is changing, and so you may want to consider changing how you live day-to-day in the winter months.” This can include tweaking your morning routine or evening activities to promote better self-care.
Try to be social
“Being social can help,” Bazilian says. “That doesn’t mean you have to magically become a social butterfly or turn into an extrovert if you’re actually an introvert. But some social engagement may help brighten the blues of the season.” She advises planning visits with friends and family, taking a cooking or exercise class, participating in team sports, or volunteering.
Talk to your doctor
Talking to your doctor about your SAD symptoms is a wise idea. Schuster Effland says, “Start the conversation with your physician, and they may be able to help with first diagnosing the situation, understanding how it impacts you, and then giving you referrals and ways to find help.”
Create a supportive plan
Schuster Effland says that something called a “Wellness Recovery Action Plan,” or WRAP, can help you set up a plan to “inform you and your support system of what it looks like when you are struggling, when you need help, and when someone needs to make decisions for you.” You can devise this alongside your therapist, and it’s particularly helpful if you’re experiencing suicidal ideation, self-harm, or other high-risk behaviors.
Explore “radical acceptance”
“If [SAD] has been happening to you year after year, it’s something to radically accept about your body’s natural biorhythm,” Schuster Effland says. “It’s not a personal deficiency or weakness. Rather, it’s a part of the natural progression of your body and mind as nature changes around you. If you were to radically accept that this is what it is, whether you like it or not, is there something you can do to embrace, support, and encourage yourself through these more challenging months?”
To practice more acceptance, Schuster Effland suggests joining a group of others who have SAD, starting a routine or practice that’s more focused on self-care and mental health, and stopping things that may be contributing to the challenges, such as coffee after 10 a.m., watching television or being on your phone late into the evening, isolating, or reducing movement.
Know that you aren’t alone
“SAD feels sometimes so personal and isolating and it’s easy to feel you’re all alone,” Bazilian says. “That’s part of the symptoms of depression.”
But you are far from alone. Millions of people are going through Seasonal Affective Disorder right along with you, and it’s not just “in your head.” Hold onto the hope that there are many things you can do to help yourself—and keep in mind that you don’t have to do all 30 things on this list each and every day. Pick a few, honor where you’re at right now, and see what works for you.