7 Tips to Avoid SADness

Do you find that your mood starts to drop like the leaves from a tree as soon as winter approaches? You may have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Dr. Monica Johnson, the Savvy Psychologist, shares 7 tips for combatting SAD.

Dr. Monica Johnson
4-minute read
Episode #373
The Quick And Dirty

If you feel your mood shift with the seasons, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Taking care your body by establishing a healthy sleep schedule, exercising, and eating well can go a long way towards combatting SAD symptoms. Additionally, light therapy and social interactions can help boost your mood.

If you’re anything like the patients I’ve seen in my career—or many people I’ve interacted with in my life—then you might notice that your mood starts to shift as the winter approaches. The cold, the dark, the wind, the snow—it all leads to the moody blues for some of us.

Today, I’m going to talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. The first thing to note is that it’s not a stand-alone mental health disorder. It’s classified under mood disorders and can be attached to a depression or bipolar diagnosis. Those with a SAD pattern typically present with symptoms consistent with some form of depression and will notice a seasonal pattern to their mood disorder. The seasonal pattern is typically between fall and spring; those with SAD may notice symptoms worsen or becoming more prevalent during that time period.

Researchers are still trying to determine the cause of SAD. Some research suggests that the shorter days and lack of light may disrupt your circadian rhythms and alter your body’s production of melatonin and serotonin, which impact your mood.

Now let’s review some steps you can take to combat SAD.

1. Establish a healthy sleep schedule

SAD can affect sleep patterns; however, if you regularly maintain the same sleep routine, it will allow you to adjust better to the seasonal changes. Create a bedtime and wake time for yourself and stick to it with as little variation from that schedule as possible.

2. Exercise regularly

I hate to say it because I have a love/hate relationship with exercise, but it does help with a lot of things. It’s important to maintain a regular exercise schedule. It’s also suggested to get a few outdoor workouts under your belt to increase your exposure to sunshine. Just make sure to bundle up appropriately. As a person who lived in Minnesota for a time, I can tell you that proper clothing can make just about any temperature tolerable.

Need some tips for your fitness routine? Listen to Get-Fit Guy, a fitness podcast for beginners and experts alike.

3. Get some sun

I alluded to this a minute ago, but get some sunshine! You need vitamin D to combat the effects of SAD and nothing is better than those natural rays. Go for walks outside, leave your blinds open, or create a nice cozy space where you can read a book and get some sun. Alternatively, if there was ever an excuse to fly to a beach during the winter, this is it!

4. Eat well

Winter encourages us to eat comfort foods and you should allow yourself to have some of that during the season. However, be mindful of your diet and make sure that it is balanced with the nutrients you need. There is some research that suggests that Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce depression symptoms. Consequently, you might want to try and make fish one of your primary sources of protein.

5. Increase vitamin D intake

You may be starting to notice a pattern and some overlap here, but vitamin D is your best friend with SAD. You can speak with your doctor and make sure that your vitamin D levels are adequate. If they are on the low side they can recommend supplements. The best way to improve your intake, though, is through your diet. You can get vitamin D from foods like fish, red meat, and eggs; or, if you're vegetarian or vegan, some mushrooms like shiitake and portobello have good vitamin D levels.

6. Try a dawn simulator or light therapy

A dawn simulator is an alarm clock that simulates the rising of the sun by slowly increasing its brightness to wake you. This sounds great to me over the startling sounds of a traditional alarm. You can also buy a light therapy unit and use it to combat SAD, which has been proven effective for some.

7. Schedule pleasant events

It’s also quite common to be socially isolated during the winter and it’s even worse for many with mental illness. Keep an active calendar. If you hate being outside in the cold for a long period of time during the winter, maybe it’s time to visit a museum or invite close friends over for a weekly board game night. Do whatever feels comfortable for you to do during these COVID times, but remember that the important thing is to have regular activity, because that leads to improvement in symptoms when you’re struggling with SAD.

I receive a lot of messages from people who want to know what they can do to manage symptoms on their own. I want to be clear that not everything can be managed on your own. The tips above can and do help many people.

So, if you’re trying to avoid professional help, your first step is to always ask: "Am I engaging in the fundamentals on a regular basis?'' The fundamentals are things that you’ve likely heard me repeat time and again. For instance, exercise, eating well, sleep, and engaging in enjoyable activities. If not, start doing these things and see if your SAD appears to stabilize or improve. If so, that may be all you need to do. If you’re not doing these things regularly and you’re not able to get yourself to do these things on your own, then you need to get some professional support. CBT and mental health meds like SSRIs have been found to be effective for SAD as well. If all else fails, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional for further assistance.

My Christmas wish is that none of you are SAD this holiday season. I’m sending you all the well wishes!

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.