How to Cope with Seasonal Depression

While daylight saving time makes us notice a new season is upon us, we may not recognize the mental health challenges that can come along with it. Mood swings at the change of the seasons are much more common than many realize. It's not just winter, either. Springtime can also result in a spike in mental health issues. Recognizing these signs can help you to address your well-being year-round.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of major depressive disorder (MDD) that’s related to the change of the seasons. It’s common during the low-sunlight winter months, often starting in the fall and easing up in the spring. However, that doesn’t mean that SAD is only prevalent in winter. The coming of spring and summer may also exacerbate mental health issues in some individuals.

SAD is not the same as the 'winter blues,' which are usually shorter and milder. SAD symptoms are more severe, which can make it hard to carry out daily tasks.

How is SAD diagnosed?

A psychiatrist or psychologist uses a specific set of criteria to diagnose SAD. A person would have depression symptoms occurring during specific seasons for at least two consecutive years. These episodes are more frequent during the specific season compared to the rest of the year.

Also, SAD may co-occur with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders, eating disorders, or major depression, making it complicated to diagnose

Symptoms of SAD

While everyone experiences mental health conditions differently, these are some of the most common symptoms of SAD:

  • Lethargy
  • Changes in sleep, appetite, or weight
  • Thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, guilty, or sad
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Persistently feeling sad, anxious, or 'empty'
  • Loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities

Often, winter-pattern SAD comes with daytime fatigue, oversleeping, overeating, and a lack of interest in social activities, while summer-pattern SAD might lead to a lack of appetite, restlessness, insomnia, agitation, or impulsive behavior.

Self-care tips for SAD

With most mental health conditions, self-care goes to the top of the list as the best thing you can do to support symptoms. This can include:

Take time to socialize

It’s easy to withdraw when we feel depressed, but reaching out to friends is key for our mental health. A sense of community helps us feel safe and secure, but even if you don’t feel you have that community, that’s okay. There are ways to work toward building up your social circle, like signing up for hobbies, sports, or volunteer work.

It does take some effort to make new friends or even see old ones as an adult, but it’s worth it. If you’re having a hard time putting yourself out there, think about seeing a therapist for support.

Find fun ways to get active

Waking up to dark mornings and leaving work after sunset doesn’t exactly give us the motivation to work out — neither does extreme heat. But if you can find activities you enjoy, even gentle ones, you’ll still get the mood-boosting benefits. Regular movement increases our endorphins and serotonin, helping to keep our mood more stable.

Think outside the box, like trying something you’ve always been curious about. For example, nature photography can get you outside walking and help you learn to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the weather. There are also indoor sports like rock climbing, yoga, Pilates, dance, and swimming.

Add nutrient-dense foods

Putting pressure on yourself to 'eat perfectly' or completely change the way you eat may be challenging and stressful. Instead, think about ways to add more nutritious foods to your day in a manageable way. That could look like adding an extra serving of vegetables to every lunch, increasing your protein at breakfast, or having fruit as a daily snack.

Giving your body the vitamins and minerals it needs is beneficial for both physical and mental health.

Spend time outdoors

Plenty of people hate the winter, but once they embrace it (and invest in quality thermal clothing), their minds change. There’s a Nordic philosophy that sums it up well, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Is it possible to open yourself up to the idea of enjoying a season more? Think of ways you could bring in the winter differently, like making your home cozy or finding a cute cafe with warmth and community. The Danish use the word 'hygge' to practice creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the simple things in life with good people around.

Plus, there are outdoor activities that keep you moving and warm, like hiking. With that, you get time in nature, which may be helpful in alleviating depression symptoms.

Set up good sleep hygiene

Working toward improving our sleep habits may help regulate our moods. Think of ways to make a good night’s sleep easier on yourself, like investing in a good mattress, pillows, earplugs, blankets, eye masks, and white-noise machines.

Calming evening routines, like reading or nighttime yoga, might be beneficial to wind down and fall asleep faster.

Try a mindfulness program

If you’re having a hard time making mindfulness a part of your daily life, think about getting workbooks or joining mindfulness programs. The 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course has been shown to support depressive symptoms. By following a course with others and a certified instructor, you might be more likely to stick to it than try mindfulness activities on your own.

Treatment for SAD

Four main types of treatments can be used alone or in combination for SAD:

1. Light therapy

Light therapy might be beneficial in improving symptoms for people with winter-pattern SAD. The treatment is simple enough, just requiring you to sit in front of a bright box with 10,000 lux every day for about 30–45 minutes. It’s usually done first thing in the morning. However, it’s not suitable for individuals with certain eye diseases.

2. Vitamin D

Along with light therapy, vitamin D may be helpful for people with winter-pattern SAD, if they have vitamin D deficiency. However, a check-up should be done with your doctor first.

3. Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is one of the most widely used treatment options. Speaking with a mental health professional can help people with SAD learn new coping skills to change daily habits.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been adapted for people with SAD, known as CBT-SAD. Over time, it aims to help people challenge and change their unhelpful thoughts and behaviors. It also uses behavioral activity, which helps people identify and schedule mood-boosting activities for the season.

4. Medication

Antidepressants can be effective for SAD when used alone or with psychotherapy, aiming to improve sleep, appetite, and mood, among others.

The FDA has approved an extended-release form of antidepressant called bupropion. It might help prevent SAD’s recurrence if taken from the early start of fall straight through to spring.

Prevention and early detection

It’s not always possible to completely prevent SAD, especially during challenging life events. However, following the self-care tips might help to support its symptoms. As you begin to tune into your body and mood more, you’ll begin to notice when something feels off. From there, you can take action to avoid worsening symptoms.

Long-term effects of avoiding treatment

When we delay getting treatment, we can find ourselves getting stuck. The longer we wait, the harder it can be to find the energy or motivation to take action. This could lead to issues such as weakened immunity, relationship strain, and an increased risk for anxiety.

Luckily, it’s never too late to try something different. No matter the season, if you’ve noticed you’re falling into depressive habits, there is something you can do about it. Light therapy, movement, and routines can be a good place to start. You can also join free online or in-person groups to gain a sense of community to help you move forward.

In the end, it’s not always easy to even recognize when we have SAD. However, if we take the time to observe and track our symptoms, we can recognize them better. With awareness, we can take steps to prevent or alleviate symptoms by practicing self-care year-round and reaching out to a professional.

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