Tips for conquering Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

a woman sitting on a rock looking at a sunset

It’s no coincidence that the initials for Seasonal Affective Disorder spell “sad.” After all, SAD a type of depression, one that’s closely related to seasonal changes, starting and ending about the same time every year. And while SAD can happen in any season, most people who experience it tend to feel worse now as the days get shorter and winter darkness sets in. In fact, SAD occurs far more frequently in areas of the world that are farther from the equator and thus get less winter daylight.

Symptoms of SAD can include lethargy, feelings of hopelessness, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating and losing interest in enjoyable activities, among others. Full-blown SAD is much more than a case of the winter blues, and can be a serious problem. If the symptoms are interfering with your daily life, or if you have trouble coping with them, you should absolutely see a doctor. (And if you’re having thoughts of death or suicide, please call your local crisis hotline immediately — you can find a listing for one in your province here.)   

If you feel like you’re coping with everyday life not too badly, but just don’t feel like yourself as the days start to get shorter and the temps start to drop, there are some self-care steps you can take that don’t require a doctor’s visit.

Try light therapy

For some people, SAD is thought to be related to the overproduction of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep and is produced when it gets dark. This can leave you feeling tired and sluggish. The possible solution? Supplement the amount of natural daylight you get with a lightbox, which provides a bright, artificial light that can trick your body into believing it’s getting more sunlight. A standard lightbox dose is 20-60 minutes of exposure to 10,000 lux of cool white fluorescent light, which you can get while you sip your morning coffee or answer your emails.

Another way to get more light? Do your best to get outside during the day when the sun is shining. Go for a walk at lunch when the daylight is brightest. The simple act of getting outside can be a mood booster in itself. Or open your blinds and sit by a window as much as you can.

Another handy gadget for treating SAD is a dawn simulator, which is a type of alarm clock that wakes you up with gradually increasing light intensity, like the sun coming up. If you regularly have to wake up in the dark, this can be a good way to start your day off on the right foot.

Sweat it out

Exercise — especially the kind that breaks a sweat — is a natural mood elevator, and is particularly effective for cases of mild to moderate depression. Although it’s best if you manage to get outside into natural daylight ( a run or brisk walk outside at lunch, maybe?), any type of exercise that you enjoy will do. (The goal is to find something that you’ll do regularly!) Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity per week, that’s only half an hour every weekday.  

Try vitamin D supplements, or tweak your diet

Vitamin D is made in the skin when it’s exposed to direct sunlight, so it’s not surprising that you might be low in vitamin D in the winter when the sun often isn’t intense enough to produce what your body needs. Although studies have shown that the effect of vitamin D supplementation on SAD is mixed, most doctors agree that vitamin D supplementation is generally safe, especially during the winter. Just check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure that taking D supplements won’t interfere with any other medications.

Don’t like the idea of taking pills? You can get vitamin D in foods, including fatty fish like salmon or mackerel, fortified orange juice, eggs, milk and mushrooms. Also, you may find yourself craving carbs much more at this time of year, and while the occasional pasta-fest is fine, you’ll feel better if you eat a healthy balance of lean protein, whole grains and fruits and veggies.

Talk to someone

Therapy, especially a type called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), can be effective in dealing with the symptoms of SAD. In CBT, a therapist works with you to identify negative thought patterns and helps you to change the way you feel by helping you think differently. Other types of therapy can work as well, as can online therapy apps.

Keep to a regular sleep schedule

It may be tempting to hibernate, especially if SAD disrupts your sleep at night, but keeping to a regular sleep schedule can help you sleep more consistently at night, which can positively affect your mood. Don’t be tempted to “catch up” on lost sleep on the weekend. Try sticking to a regular bedtime and waking time, even when you don’t have to get up for work. Another bonus of a sleep schedule? You’ll eat at regular times as well, helping to short-circuit the weight gain that can often accompany SAD.

Interact with people you like

Even if SAD leaves you feeling…well, sad, book fun activities with friends as much as you can, because socializing can be a powerful mood booster. Just make sure your socializing suits your personality. Book a coffee date with one close friend if you’re not the partying type, or go to a busy art exhibit opening if you usually enjoy being around people. Have a games night with a few people you really like, or head to a bar with a crowd of buddies. You do you. Just try and resist the urge to isolate yourself. (Also, don’t drink too much. Alcohol is a depressant and can leave you feeling worse than you felt before.)

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