SAD stands for “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” and while there is some debate over whether or not it’s actually a standalone psychological disorder, studies do show that people can experience depression when seasons change. About 10 to 20 percent of the United States population experiences SAD, with women making up about 75 percent of that statistic. The phenomenon, according to psychologists, is due to the change in sunlight, particularly in parts of the world that struggle to get it in the winter months.
It’s not exactly clear what causes SAD, but researchers believe that a reduction in sunlight leads to a slowdown in the brain’s release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that scientists believe regulates mood, appetite, digestion, desire, social behavior, sleep, memory, and other factors that contribute heavily to our general state of wellbeing.
Moreover, darker seasons affect the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep. The pineal gland produces more melatonin when it’s dark, prompting you to go to sleep, and less when it’s light, making it easier for you to stay awake. The darker it is, the sleepier you are, hence why the winter months can make you feel sluggish.
“Our brains tend to respond to light in terms of circadian rhythms,” says Dr. Guy Winch, a psychologist and the author of Emotional First Aid. “Some people respond with a drop in mood, feeling lethargic. You get the instinct to hibernate.” Other symptoms include irritability, anxiety, loss of interest in activities that used to excite you, and an urge to withdraw and isolate.
SAD is especially strong in places with significant seasonal change, like the Northeastern United States, and tends to lift when the seasons change back and the sun returns. But that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to experience when you’re in it, especially in January and February, when winter seems as though it will be endless. Here are some tips to keep you sane ‘til spring.
Seek help if you need it
Seasonal change can propel you into full-blown depression, and often the best way to work through that is with a licensed professional. “When people are actually depressed, they might know intellectually that they weren’t always depressed. But we have a hard time remembering states when we are not in them,” Winch says. “When we are not starving, we have a hard time remembering how centering and compelling real hunger is. You can’t really reason yourself out of depression in that way.”
There are a number of ways to find a therapist, including via recommendations from friends who are already in therapy, through the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysts, through your health insurance, or through this handy guide. If you can’t afford a therapist, there are a number of mental health resources and hotlines that can serve as alternatives.
Your mental health counselor might be able to prescribe you medication to ease some of your SAD symptoms, plus the two of you can help build a SAD-combating strategy around some of the tips offered in the rest of this article.
Pinpoint the problem
One of the trickiest things about SAD is that the hormonal shifts can be so slight, it’s hard to tell that something’s wrong in the first place. Though some SAD sufferers battle full-throttle depression, others might feel just a little grumpy or sleepy, and/or have inexplicable cravings for sweets and carbohydrates.
Dr. Ani Kalayjian, a Professor of Psychology at Columbia University and the author of Forget Me Not: 7 Steps for Healing Our Body, Mind, Spirit, and Mother Earth, says it’s a good idea to keep daily track of your moods on a one to 10 scale. “Although there are general symptoms [of SAD], you need to know how it impacts you directly,” she says. “On the emotional level we don’t have thermometers, so we have to measure up to 10, ‘How irritable do I feel now?’ If it’s below four, we can continue with our work and daily life, but when we get over four, we tend to lose control.”
Other symptoms, in addition to irritability, include: low energy and lethargy, having trouble concentrating, some anxiety, being more reactive to irritants and other triggers, a sudden need to withdraw, an urge to hibernate, a decrease in sexual drive, a change in appetite (particularly a craving for carbohydrates), and a general sense of sadness. If you find this change in mood starts sometime in October and November and persists for more than a few weeks, there’s a good chance it’s SAD.
Invest in a light therapy lamp
One of the quickest and most effective ways to manage seasonal depression is with a light therapy lamp. “These are light lamps that light up to 10,000 lux of light, which functions as a replacement for the sun, in a way,” Winch says.
There are a number of different kinds of light boxes available, and though Winch suggests setting one up near you for about 10 to 20 minutes while you’re eating breakfast in the morning, your mental health provider might recommend a specific one to use for a certain duration at a certain time of day depending on the severity of your symptoms.
Each box will have different instructions for how to place it, but the result is more or less the same. “It makes it feel like it’s a really sunny day outside,” Winch says. “It’s a really effective tool.” There are lots of light therapy lamps available online at a variety of price points, or you can make your own, if you are so inclined.
One of the things we lose when sunlight diminishes is Vitamin D3, a deficit of which causes symptoms akin to those comprising SAD. “The majority of Americans are deficient in Vitamin D3, and that causes very similar signs of SAD and depression, like not wanting to get out of bed, feeling sad, being irritable” Kalayjian says. She suggests stocking up on Vitamin D3 supplements (pills, chewables, and creams) to help stave off some of those symptoms. “If they have any signs of SAD, they should take 4,000 international units,” Kalayjian says. “If there aren’t any severe signs, just take 2,000 units for maintenance.” Note that you should consult with your doctor before taking any supplements, and also note that not all kinds are created equal, though ConsumerLab.com has a good list of reputable brands.
In addition to Vitamin D3 pills, Kalayjian suggests taking supplements that help with sleep and relaxation. For instance: “Magnesium complex at bedtime will make sure your muscles are also relaxed. A lot of times when we go to bed, we’re carrying all this stress and irritability and frustration in our body, so we’re waking up and wondering, ‘Why is my back stiff? Why is my neck pinched?’ We didn’t process and release the stress.” Again, consult with a physician before taking any supplements, but it is important to sleep well, since one method of combating SAD is:
Get a good night’s sleep
You should always aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but it’s especially important in the winter, when your circadian rhythm is already knocked off thanks to the change in daylight. Winch recommends keeping a steady sleep schedule. “Try to go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time,” Winch says. “The body is amenable to things like that. It helps limit sleep disturbances.” That includes on weekends—staying up late and sleeping in on your days off is fun, but it has a similar effect on your body as jetlag, and makes it harder to reset the rhythm during the work week.
Kalayjian recommends downloading an app that will remind you when it’s time for bed, as well as meditation and white noise apps. “You can choose some relaxing chime music and other relaxing music to help you relax your body and mind,” she said. She also recommends meditating before bed. There are a number of good apps out there that’ll help track your sleep and wake you up gently or at the right time in your cycle, like Smart Alarm Clock and SleepCycle. I’m personally also a fan of white noise apps like SimplyNoise, which help block out street noise and other stressors that might interrupt your night.
There is nothing I want to do less in the winter than expose any part of my body to the outdoors, but when sunlight is already limited, staying inside will exacerbate the SAD. “Spending time outdoors is useful, especially on sunny days,” Winch says. Winch recommends getting your sun in at lunchtime—it’s a convenient time to take a break, plus the sun at its strongest in the early afternoon. “Just be outside for an hour, or for half an hour,” he says. You can combat the cold by taking a brisk walk, since the exercise will warm you up. And though you may be tempted to stay indoors all day on non-work days, consider taking up winter activities like sledding and ice-skating—they’re fun, active, and distracting, so you get some sun in, and you can reward yourself with a hot drink afterwards.
Get the hell out of town
The SAD months are not a good time to plan a trip to Alaska, and the middle of a pandemic is arguably not a good time to plan a trip anywhere. But if you have the means and the opportunity to safely travel, winter is a great time to head somewhere with sun, like Florida, or California—or the Maldives, if you’re feeling particularly rich and wanderlust-y.
“Follow the sun,” Kalayjian says. “Instead of taking vacation in the summer, we can try to have our vacations in January and February, which are the months that my clients express the worst symptoms. You feel refreshed, get to store some rays, and come back with a new and positive attitude.”
Eat your vegetables
All the fun stuff happening with your serotonin and melatonin levels will make you crave high sugar foods and carbohydrates. Unfortunately, overloading on sweets and bread will just make you feel more sluggish and low. There’s no need to ditch carbs—there’s nothing like a big bowl of spaghetti to mitigate a snowstorm, after all—but do maintain a balanced diet. “High-sugar foods surge and deplete our energy,” Kalayjian says. She recommends getting plenty of dark leafy vegetables, fish, protein, and fruit, which keep your energy up without a crash and keep you full to cut cravings. “They help you move around,” she said.
Remind yourself that it’s temporary
If you find your mood shift is mild, it does help to keep reminding yourself that SAD is a temporary state. Research shows people get through dark, cold months better if they embrace the change in seasons, rather than waiting and waiting for the sun to come back. “It’s helpful to reconnect and see the climate as part of us, not as separate and as an enemy,” Kalayjian says. “Use bad weather days to organize your closets, or do things that are meaningful to you that you don’t get to do on a sunny day.”
In fact, though the Danish concept of hygge feels a little over-marketed these days, using the winter months to focus on being cozy inside and outside will make you feel less like you’re battling the dark. Wrap yourself in sweaters, drink hot cider, light candles, read books, write in a journal, and spend time with friends and family, preferably in small rooms with fireplaces and mulled wine. Of course, hygge and hot cocoa won’t fix serious SAD symptoms, hence why seeing a mental health professional is the first step. But at the very least, they’ll make winter a little more bearable.
This post was first published in November 2018 and was updated on October 26, 2020 by Beth Skwarecki to update the introduction and the travel section, replace links, and meet Lifehacker style guidelines.