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.
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!