5 Ways to Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Proven strategies to prevent SAD and beat the winter blues

When the clocks “fall back” in November and the evenings get shorter, some people find the blues springing forward.

If you’re among them, and your mood doesn’t improve within a few weeks, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a mild-to-severe form of seasonal depression which may affect up to 20 percent of Americans, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

“It’s normal for some people to feel a little down when the seasons change and we lose our long summer daylight hours,” says Lawrence Schlitt, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic, Del Mar. “Common symptoms include increased sleep, increased weight, irritability, difficulties with personal relationships and the feeling of “heaviness” in your arms and legs. If these feelings persist, there are ways to counteract the mood-dampening effects of winter.”

1. Cut the white carbs

“As the days grow shorter, you may find yourself craving comfort foods — simple carbohydrates like bread, pasta, sugary pastries and potatoes,” says Dr. Schlitt. “But the crash that follows a carb or sugar binge can leave you feeling worse than you did before.”

Dr. Schlitt suggests feeding your body and brain what they really need — amino-acid-rich lean protein sources like poultry, fish and eggs, along with nutrient-dense whole grains and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Some studies suggest omega-3 fatty acids (found in salmon, walnuts and flax seeds) may have anti-properties. So it turns out the same plant-based diet that’s optimal for health and wellness during warm, light weather is also the best way to boost your mood when the nights are long and dark.

2. Make time to get moving

Even though a blue mood may make exercise feel like that last thing you want to do, movement should be one of your top priorities during the dark winter months. “To get the biggest mood boost from exercise, go outside and do it during daylight hours,” says Dr. Schlitt.

Schedule some exercise in the morning or in the afternoon to get your endorphins flowing and to let your body manufacture some sunlight-fed Vitamin D at the same time. A wealth of evidence has shown that mild to moderate daily exercise helps with depression — especially walking, jogging, biking, dancing or even jumping rope. These rhythmic forms of exercise can put your mind into a meditative state, which can help with stress management — a critical component when you’re looking to bolster your mood.

Studies suggest as few as three hours per week (as little as 20 minutes per day) could be enough to positively affect your mood, while also improving your sleep and stress levels.

3. Consider light therapy

In recent years, more and more studies have produced evidence that sitting or working near a source of very bright light for 30 minutes to 2 hours per day from Fall to Spring can improve symptoms and increase energy levels. Used once or twice per day, light therapy may offer some relief when symptoms are particularly severe.

In fact, there are special light therapy boxes that mimic bright outdoor light and come in different colors (usually blue or white) and various intensities that are brighter than normal indoor lighting. Light therapy boxes are sold over-the-counter at many retailers and range from under $50 to more than $500, but they are not regulated or approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and are not typically covered by health insurance.

“It’s important to note that tanning beds are not light therapy,” says Dr. Schlitt. “Light therapy boxes work because the light is visible and enters the eyes indirectly. They filter out the harmful ultraviolet rays that can cause skin cancer.”

While light therapy is generally safe, people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and are not on medication should not try light therapy without a doctor’s supervision, because it may trigger a manic episode.

4. Get your thoughts in line

With or without light therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a specific form of psychotherapy that focuses on changing one’s thoughts about a situation or condition and subsequent response to them, has also shown promise in studies for treating SAD.

“CBT for seasonal affective disorder teaches people to challenge negative thoughts and incorporate more enjoyable activities into daily life during the winter months,” says Dr. Schlitt.

For example, if a person with SAD constantly says she “can’t stand the darkness of winter,” a cognitive-behavioral therapist may encourage her to reframe her thoughts to “I prefer summer and spring and dislike winter.” She may also be asked to commit to 10-15 minutes of pleasant activities of her choice each day, such as listening to relaxing music, spending time with a pet or mindfully eating piece of chocolate.

Your primary physician may be able to refer you to a qualified cognitive-behavioral therapist.

5. Talk to your doctor

If all else fails and you find you cannot break through the bleakness of winter depression, you may need help. Antidepressants have been studied for the treatment of SAD and found to be as effective as light therapy without requiring the same daily time commitment.

“If you have severe symptoms, like feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, and your depression is limiting your ability to engage in work, family life or other normal activities, schedule an appointment with your physician so you can evaluate, together, whether you may need medication during the winter months,” say Dr. Schlitt. “SAD is a recognized medical condition, and you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out for medical expertise to help you get through these months if you need it.”