How to Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder

While the cooler temperatures and shorter days can mean relief from the summer heat, for some people, the winter months can be difficult and bring a change of mood. This change of mood can take the form of a Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs during particular seasons, then improves as the next season begins.

About 10% of New Zealanders suffer from SAD, sometimes called the “winter blues”. This condition is four times more common in women than in men and is also seen in children, and tends to happen more often in the 20’s or 30’s. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that people experience at particular times of the year, most commonly during winter. Most of us are affected by seasons changing in some way, and it’s normal to feel a bit sluggish during the winter. However, for some people this greatly affects their mood and often heavily affects their day-to-day lives.

What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The symptoms of SAD mirror some of those seen in other forms of depression. The impact of these symptoms can be different from person to person. Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder can include the following:

  • Need for excessive sleep
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Low concentration
  • Increased appetite
  • Reduced energy
  • Cravings for carbohydrates
  • Restlessness

It can also affect a person’s ability to interact with others and their social relationships.

There are variations in how severely SAD affects people. People who live in areas of the world that have reduced daylight hours in winter are at increased risk as compared to those living in areas with more sunlight.

As we continue through winter, it’s a good idea to think about the simple things we can do to look after our mental health and help others who may be experiencing signs of the “winter blues”.

Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder

Symptoms of SAD usually improve as a new season begins, whether winter giving way to spring, or summer giving way to fall. But when you are at risk for SAD or have experienced symptoms in the past, it’s important to learn to identify and manage them so you can prepare for the changing seasons.

While therapy and medication may be essential for some people, there are also simple strategies to help self-manage symptoms throughout the season.

Natural light

Though it's not a complete cure, making the most of natural light and stepping outdoors can vastly improve symptoms of SAD. Taking time each day to go outside and take in the natural world will help to put things in perspective and focus on one’s other senses of sight, smell, and hearing.

Reduce stress

Many people find that they are more likely to experience stress in winter. When you have plans and commitments in place, it can be stressful when those plans change due to weather or are cancelled due to illness. It’s best you reduce the number of stressful (or potentially stressful) activities and commitments you might be tying yourself into. 

If you can, try to make more spare time to rest, relax or do pleasant activities in the winter like getting a massage, running a bath for yourself, sitting by the fireplace in a hooded poncho towel or reading a book to unwind.

Physical activities

Physical activity can be very effective in lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels. It doesn’t have to be too strenuous but should be done once a day for at least 20 minutes. Have some form of daily physical activity whether indoors or outdoors, like stretching, yoga, or taking a long walk outside. Set a reasonable goal for yourself and establish a habit over time.

Healthy meals

It’s common to want to crave carbohydrates like potatoes or pasta when you’re going through SAD, but it’s important to balance it with a healthy diet. Eating healthy can improve your energy throughout the day and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables contain extra vitamins to better nourish your body.

Cooking healthy meals can also help focus and stimulate your mind. There’s plenty of easy healthy recipes online for you to try that are both filling and delicious.

Light therapy

Light therapy can be used as treatment for SAD. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a specialised light box or visor that emits 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light for 20 to 60 minutes each morning to mimic natural light. 

This form of treatment has been around since the 1980s, and the main premise behind it is that increasing your exposure to bright, artificial light during the fall and winter months can ease the symptoms of SAD.

Connect with people

In most cases it's hard to talk with people when you’re experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder and feel no desire to connect with others, but there are many benefits to reaching out and connecting with people you care about. Talking through things that are worrying you can be really helpful and you might find others experiencing the same symptoms of SAD. 

Talking to a professional therapist or health care provider can also help with a wide assortment of mental and emotional health conditions you may be experiencing with SAD. 

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that happens often during cooler winter months. Whether you’ve experienced SAD in the past or you’re currently dealing with symptoms of SAD there are positive ways to manage it as you go into the next season.