8 Ways To Cope With Seasonal Affective Disorder
Thanks to effective treatments for seasonal depression, you don’t have to feel as low.
Medically reviewed by Stella Bard, MD
When daylight saving time ends, you may gain an extra hour of sleep but lose something precious: sunlight. As daylight slips into darkness earlier in the day, depression diagnoses increase.1
Millions of Americans slump into a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD—though some may not realize they have it. Other individuals may experience “winter blues,” a milder form of seasonal depression.2
Obviously, you can’t control seasonal changes, but hibernating during the fall and winter is not the solution. “If you wake up and you want to pull the covers over your eyes, that’s the worst thing to do,” said Norman Rosenthal, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Rosenthal also said the best thing to do is exactly the opposite: “Get more light, get out of bed, get active.” And while very depressed people may need to see a healthcare provider or mental health professional, many cases of seasonal depression can be self-treated, added Dr. Rosenthal.
Read on to learn about some tried-and-true treatment methods, plus a few strategies that may be worth giving a whirl if you have seasonal affective disorder.
Try Light Therapy
A daily dose of bright light, especially in the morning, has been shown in multiple studies to be an effective, mood-elevating therapy. It’s one of the main treatments for people with SAD and is thought to help compensate for the lack of natural light people get during colder, darker months.2
“When light hits the retina of the eye, it’s converted into nerve impulses that pass back to specialized regions of the brain that are involved in emotional regulation,” explained Dr. Rosenthal.
You’ll find any number of bright-light-emitting lamps and light boxes on the market for this purpose. Treatment involves 20 to 60 minutes of daily exposure to cool-white fluorescent light.2
Catch Some Rays
SAD strikes when there’s a shortage of natural light, usually during the fall and winter months. So it stands to reason that soaking in sunlight on a bright fall or winter day may help lift people from their seasonal despair.
Here’s why it works: Natural light affects serotonin levels, a mood-regulating chemical known as a neurotransmitter.3 With natural light comes increased serotonin, so bundle up and bask in nature’s brilliance. “You’re getting a lot of light coming into the eyes that way,” explained Dr. Rosenthal.
A regular workout routine is great for the body and mind and can also benefit people with SAD. Increased exercise and physical activity can raise levels of “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain, like dopamine.4
You might even consider combining two treatments in one by exercising while getting light therapy. “That could be a brisk walk on a sunny day or the exer-cycle in front of a light box,” said Dr. Rosenthal.
Two types of prescription medicines have been shown to help people cope with seasonal affective disorder. One option is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI. These prescription antidepressants work by boosting serotonin levels in the brain.
Generic bupropion (Wellbutrin and Budeprion) is another option. It improves mood by boosting brain levels of three different chemical messengers: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.5
Researchers noted that extended-release bupropion taken early in the fall before seasonal depression set in reduced the recurrence of depressive symptoms in SAD patients compared with a placebo in three studies.6
These drugs carry risks of side effects, including suicidal thoughts and behavior in some children, teens, and young adults.5 Therefore, they may not be the right treatment for everyone.
Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Of all the different types of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) “has the most going for it,” wrote Dr. Rosenthal in his book Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.
CBT helps people with seasonal depression replace negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with positive thinking and actions.2
The cognitive part is recognizing that SAD isn’t a personal deficit, explained Dr. Rosenthal: “It’s part of your genetic makeup and your response to the seasons and light, so you don’t have to blame yourself.” The behavioral part is taking time for yourself to do something you enjoy, like practicing yoga or grabbing lunch with a friend.
Watch Your Junk Food Intake
When you’re stuck in a seasonal funk, it’s tempting to reach for sweet and starchy comfort foods. Sure, you’ll get an immediate energy boost. But the feeling isn’t sustained, and eating too much sugar can negatively affect health.
Researchers found that having a diet with foods such as sweets, sugars, and fast food was associated with an increased risk of depression. Conversely, eating patterns that included foods such as vegetables, nuts, and eggs were connected to reduced depression risk.7
Stress can be particularly awful for people with SAD.4 So, if seasonal depression saps your energy every winter, do your best not to become overwhelmed. This is, of course, easier said than done.
Adapt by lightening your load, said Dr. Rosenthal. “Let’s say you’re used to making a big Christmas, and it’s so stressful. Well, take everybody to a restaurant and decide to have your big party in the spring or summer,” added Dr. Rosenthal.
Other stress management techniques can help you cope with seasonal depression, including practicing meditation, scheduling big projects and deadlines for the summer, and taking breaks to walk outside in the sun.
Take a Warm Winter Vacation
If winters are bringing you down, a change of venue might help: If it’s available to you, a visit to a warmer place can help prevent symptoms of SAD.4
“Many of my patients have learned that if they have a choice, it’s better to take vacations in winter than in summer,” wrote Dr. Rosenthal in a chapter of his book on alternatives to light therapy. “Two weeks in a sunny climate in January can effectively interrupt the worst stretch of winter,” wrote Dr. Rosenthal.
A Quick Review
Seasonal affective disorder affects individuals during colder weather. Fortunately, there are ways to cope with the condition until the weather warms up, such as exercising, spending time in natural light, and taking a warm winter vacation. If you’re unsure where to start, a healthcare provider or mental health professional can help determine which methods might work best for you.
- Hansen BT, Sønderskov KM, Hageman I, Dinesen PT, Østergaard SD. Daylight savings time transitions and the incidence rate of unipolar depressive episodes. Epidemiology. 2017;28(3):346-353. doi:10.1097/EDE.0000000000000580
- National Institute of Mental Health. Seasonal affective disorder.
- An M, Colarelli SM, O’Brien K, Boyajian ME. Why we need more nature at work: effects of natural elements and sunlight on employee mental health and work attitudes. Branchi I, ed. PLoS ONE. 2016;11(5):e0155614. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0155614
- Munir S, Abbas M. Seasonal depressive disorder. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.
- Sheffler ZM, Patel P, Abdijadid S. Antidepressants. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.
- Belge JB, Sabbe AC, Sabbe BG. When is pharmacotherapy necessary for the treatment of seasonal affective disorder? Expert Opinion on Pharmacotherapy. 2022;23(11):1243-1245. doi:10.1080/14656566.2022.2100696
- Nouri Saeidlou S, Kiani A, Ayremlou P. Association between dietary patterns and major depression in adult females: a case-control study. J Res Health Sci. 2021;21(1):e00506-e00506. doi:10.34172/jrhs.2021.37