7 Tips for Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Middle age Caucasian woman in winter coat and hat outside looking sad

Approximately 5% of Americans experience seasonal affective disorder, a shift in mood that corresponds with the changing seasons. Although seasonal depression can occur during the summer, most sufferers feel their mood and energy plummet in late fall and winter, as days get shorter and darkness lingers.

Important note: SAD is not simply the winter blues. In people who have SAD, symptoms—which can include restlessness, irritability, sleep changes, loss of hope, and feelings of worthless—interfere with daily functioning. If seasonal affective disorder is interfering with your life, these tips can help.

1. Go Outside

As tempting as it is to stay huddled inside, getting outside for a few minutes each and every day may keep your symptoms in check. The human body needs sunlight, so step outside and soak up a few rays. (The sun is still there, even on cloudy days.) For added benefit, take a walk, ride a bike, or putter in your garden; exercise has also been shown to improve mood.

If you can’t get outside, try sitting by a sunny window whenever possible.

2. Call a Counselor

Talk therapy—specifically, a form of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—is a very effective seasonal affective disorder treatment. This form of therapy helps people learn how to identify and replace negative thoughts, while also building coping skills. Investing some time in CBT can provide long-term relief too. At least one study has found that people who undergo CBT for SAD have fewer symptoms a year later than SAD sufferers who were treated with light therapy.

3. Get Social

Seasonal affective disorder can cause people to withdraw socially. When you’re low on energy and feeling worthless, getting out and seeing other people—or even allowing a friend to stop in for a cup of coffee—can seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But isolating yourself won’t help; in fact, isolation increases depressive symptoms.

Make it a point to get out and interact with other human beings. Let your closest friends know about the problem so they can keep an eye on you and get you out of the house. Consider volunteering; a regular volunteer schedule may make it easier to overcome your internal resistance to going out.

4. Talk to Your Doctor

Because low energy and sleep and appetite changes also accompany many different physical disorders, it’s a good idea to discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider. She’ll perform a physical exam and order tests she deems necessary. If there is nothing wrong physically, your provider can explain your options for seasonal affective disorder treatment, including light therapy and talk therapy. If those treatments aren’t sufficient to control your symptoms, antidepressant medication is an option.

5. Look into Light Therapy

The primary treatment for seasonal affective disorder is light therapy. This is regular exposure to a light source that mimics outdoor light. You do not need a prescription to buy a seasonal affective disorder lamp or light box, but it’s a good idea to ask your healthcare provider for a recommendation; your provider can point you to effective light boxes and provide directions for use.

Typically, people use a lamp or light box daily, for about 20 to 30 minutes. Most people experience an improvement in symptoms within days, though it may take two weeks or so to feel better.

6. Relax

Pamper yourself during this season. It’s OK to operate at less-than-full-throttle. Make time for naps, massages and hot baths, if you enjoy them. Say no to stressful obligations or meetings whenever possible. Self-talk is important too. Tell yourself you’re doing your best for this time of year.

Pro tip: Take action during the summer (or whenever you feel best). Plan ahead—buy holiday gifts, stock up on freezer meals, and schedule some fun activities for your down time. Use your energy when it’s present, and take care when you’re feeling low.

7. Book a Vacation

If you can, head somewhere sunny. Even a few days of sunshine can make a big difference in a person’s mood—and the anticipation of a vacation can provide much-needed hope on dark days. Post-vacation, savor your memories and photos; recalling good times can induce good feelings.

Can’t get away? Pull out photos and souvenirs of vacations past. These tangible memories of happy moments may boost your mood and help you keep your seasonal affective disorder symptoms under control.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 16
  1. Seasonal Depression. Mental Health America. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/sad
  2. Seasonal Affective Disorder. American Academy of Family Physicians. https://familydoctor.org/condition/seasonal-affective-disorder/
  3. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). American Psychiatric Association. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder
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  5. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Nemours Foundation. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/sad.html
  6. Seasonal Affective Disorder. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/seasonalaffectivedisorder.html
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  8. Seasonal Affective Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml#part_152433
  9. Rohan KJ, Meyerhoff J, Ho SY, et al. Outcomes One And Two Winters Following Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Or Light Therapy For Seasonal Affective Disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2016;173(3):244-51.   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26539881 
  10. Seasonal Affective Disorder Sufferers Have More Than Just Winter Blues. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/02/seasonal-disorder.aspx
  11. How Can I Help Myself Cope with SAD? Mind. https://www.mind.org.uk/about-us/
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