Millions of Americans struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Also known as seasonal depression, this debilitating condition can prevent sufferers from embracing the many joys of the winter season. The good news? There are techniques you can use to help encourage a more positive mood.
Here’s a closer look at what SAD is, along with 10 coping strategies to improve your mental health and well-being during the winter months, even if you do not suffer from SAD.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
While everyone experiences feelings of sadness, seasonal affective disorder is specifically linked with the changing of the seasons. Winter-onset SAD is most common and occurs due to the days growing shorter, darker, and colder.
Psychiatrist and professor Sanford Auerbach explains that, “SAD refers to changes in mood that occur when symptoms fluctuate according to the season of the year. Most commonly, it refers to depression associated with the winter months, typically fall and winter. It’s thought to be related to the fact that during the winter months we have shorter days.”
SAD can affect anyone, but it’s more prevalent among women. You may also be at increased risk if you have a history (or family history) of depression or bipolar disorder or if you live far from the equator.
And while SAD's specific causes are unknown, scientists have linked it to the body’s natural circadian rhythms, serotonin levels, melatonin levels, and vitamin D deficiencies.
Symptoms of SAD
Signs and symptoms of winter-onset SAD typically appear in late fall and continue until the sunny days of spring arrive. According to the Mayo Clinic, they may include:
- Feelings of depression for most of the day nearly every day
- Lost interest in enjoyable activities and pastimes
- Tiredness and low energy
- Appetite and weight changes, including cravings for high-carb foods
- Feelings of sluggishness and agitation
- Difficulty with concentrating
- Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and guilt
- Frequent thoughts of suicide or death
Treating Seasonal Depression
In some cases, SAD can lead to withdrawal from friends and family, problems at school and work, substance abuse, and other issues. And while there’s no “cure” for this disorder, certain treatments – including therapy, antidepressants, psychotherapy, and mind-body techniques – have been proven to be effective in managing seasonal depression. Consider the following techniques, as well:
Let some sunlight in
Sunshine is a wonderful natural remedy for SAD. In addition to keeping your blinds open, remove any obstacles that prevent sunlight from entering your home. If possible, sit near a bright window during the daytime to make the most of these bright daylight hours.
The best way to soak up some rays is to get outside and enjoy the outdoors. Even on cloudy, cold days, you can still feel the mood-boosting benefits of spending time outside. To maximize the effects of time outdoors, get outside within two hours of waking up.
Regular physical activity helps to reduce the symptoms of SAD, especially those related to anxiety and stress. Try some winter outdoor activities like skiing or snowshoeing, or even something as simple as a short-distance hike can be sufficient.
Follow your treatment plan
If you’ve consulted your doctor about SAD and already have a treatment plan in motion, stick to it! This means attending all scheduled therapy appointments and following your doctor’s direction accordingly.
Make healthy choices
In addition to exercising, other healthy lifestyle changes can help counter the symptoms of SAD. These include getting enough sleep (the recommended eight hours), eating nutritious foods, and avoiding drugs or alcohol for relief.
Manage your stress
Stress can exacerbate the symptoms of SAD. Proven stress management techniques like yoga, breathwork, and meditation can prove a valuable defense against SAD-related anxieties. Keeping your stress levels under control will give you the ability to concentrate your efforts on easing other symptoms of seasonal depression.
Get by with a little help from your friends
It’s hard to be social when you’re feeling down. However, connecting with other people can go a long way toward lifting your spirits. So make time for your friends!
Hit the road
Sometimes, a vacation is exactly what the doctor ordered. If you have the time and means, schedule a vacation! Anything from a day off to a weekend away could significantly boost your spirits.
Be a mind-body master
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “People with SAD often have stress, anxiety, and negative thoughts about the winter.” Positive affirmations and mantras can help you maintain an optimistic outlook. Practice these affirmations daily to see the best results.
Have realistic expectations
While the holidays are something to look forward to for many people, they can be triggering for others. Setting realistic goals, pacing yourself in terms of what you take on, and seeking out the activities — and people! — you can enjoy it and it can help.
One last thing to keep in mind: Seasonal depression is much easier to prevent than cure. If you know you’re prone to SAD, proactively embracing these strategies before the winter days arrive can help you stay ahead of it.
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