Mental Health

How to Cope With Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Vicky Prater, MDby Vicky Prater, MD
How to Cope With Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)


It’s natural to experience more fatigue during the winter as days grow shorter. For some people, however, the colder weather and turn of seasons brings about feelings of sadness, low energy and depression that they just can’t shake. 

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) impacts 5% of the U.S. population each year. Known widely as the “winter blues”, seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that only occurs during a specific time of year.

For many, the warning signs of seasonal affective disorder are subtle and overlooked. They might write them off as “being tired” or “just feeling down.” But seasonal affective disorder is a real mental health condition that deserves recognition and treatment. 

Lifestyle changes and medical care can help you begin to feel better no matter what the season. First, recognizing the signs of seasonal affective disorder is important. Knowing how to separate symptoms from everyday feelings can help you decide what changes to make to start feeling better.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Everyone feels a little blue and tired from time to time. But seasonal affective disorder, like other types of depression, causes long-lasting feelings. Low mood and fatigue are just two of the common signs of seasonal affective disorder. 

Diagnoses help patients get the most accurate treatment from their healthcare providers. 

1. Depression 

Seasonal affective disorder can be hard to tell apart from other forms of depression, especially if you also struggle with depression during other times of the year. However, if you notice a depressive episode start or become more intense during a particular time of year, it could be linked to SAD. 

Depression warning signs include:

  • Feelings of guilt and misery that do not let up

  • A loss of self-esteem and confidence 

  • Questioning self-worth and value in your life

  • Changes in appetite and sleep habits

  • Negative thoughts that run in a loop

  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Wanting to spend more time alone, avoiding family and friends 

2. Craving Carbohydrates 

Research shows that people with seasonal affective disorder may crave carb-heavy foods more. The brain neurotransmitter serotonin may be linked to this change in dietary cravings. Serotonin not only affects mood regulation but other important bodily functions as well.

During the winter, you may find yourself craving “comfort foods” more often. These tend to be rich in carbohydrates, which can elevate your mood by stimulating the production of more serotonin. You may be eating more carbs to feel a greater mood boost and raise energy levels.  This boost may be temporary, however, leading to crashes in energy shortly afterwards. 

Of course, too many carbs are not healthy and can lead to problems such as weight gain. For someone struggling with depression, the added stress of gaining weight can have a negative impact on their self-esteem. This only leads to more negative thoughts that worsen their symptoms.

3. Increased Anxiety

Depression and anxiety often occur together, and their symptoms may feed off one another. A person who feels anxious often has higher stress levels, which can worsen depression. 

Anxiety in seasonal affective disorder may manifest as increased irritability, frustration and general stress in everyday life. You may feel burned out or constantly feel like you’ve reached your limit.

Noting how often your anxiety occurs, and how intense it is, can help your doctor determine if it is connected to SAD. 

4. Mood Changes

Think back on the last few winters. Has there been a noticeable change in your moods when the seasons changed?

Some people also experience a major mood shift after their affected season is over. Many people with SAD will feel a sense of euphoria and extremely good mood during spring and summertime.

It’s most important to identify what times of year these mood changes occur and how long they last. You should also note how you feel before and after the shift occurs.


5. Self-Isolation & Social Changes

During an episode of seasonal affective disorder, you may feel less like engaging with others. This could affect your personal relationships, especially with those who are closest to you. 

Seasonal affective disorder, like other forms of depression, often causes a strong desire to avoid social contact. This may be because you feel guilty or ashamed of your feelings, or you feel too tired to engage in conversation.

A sense of being “drained” by spending time around others could be related to SAD.

6. Lethargy 

When you are experiencing depression, it can be hard to find the energy or desire to do anything. Motivation may be at an all-time low, and it can feel like a struggle just to get out of bed or even move your body. 

Lethargy can also affect your brain as well. During a period of seasonal affective disorder, you might have trouble thinking clearly, focusing on tasks and remembering things. 

How to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you think you have seasonal affective disorder, the best course of action is to seek out medical advice. A professional screening by a doctor can help determine if you have SAD or another type of depression.

Sometimes, other health conditions may lead to symptoms similar to seasonal affective disorder.

By reaching out to a doctor, you can know whether or not you have this disorder. Your doctor will also ask questions such as how long you’ve experienced these symptoms and any family history of depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders. 

After diagnosis, your doctor can work with you to develop a personal care plan. 

Personalized care is a core part of any successful mental health treatment. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, individual care targets your specific symptoms to help you feel better faster. 

However, there are some known strategies that can help ease the symptoms of SAD. Your doctor may suggest you try some of these along with additional medical treatments. 

1. Increase Sunlight Exposure as Much as Possible

During the winter, you may wake up when it's dark, go to work and find that it's already pitch-black outside before you leave the office. Shorter and darker days with less sunlight have a negative impact on your energy and mood.

Make sure you find time to spend outside during the day. This could be going for a walk at lunch, or sitting by a window. If you work from home, consider moving your desk so you can be in natural light during the day. 

For those who have fall-onset SAD, your doctor may suggest you try light therapy. 

Light therapy can be done at home with the purchase of a light box, but you should ask your doctor about whether it’s a good option for you before making any purchase. 

2. Exercise Regularly 

Physical activity is one of the most effective natural treatments for a wide number of mental health problems. Depression can cause you to sit more often, and a lack of motivation can make movement exhausting. However, it’s important to stay as active as you can.

Exercise, even for 10 minutes at a time, can raise your energy levels. It also releases endorphins, which naturally elevate your mood. 

You don’t have to work out intensely to experience positive effects. Light aerobic exercise, like walking or doing arm movements and leg lifts, can be equally beneficial. 

3. Talk to a Therapist

A doctor can refer you to a psychotherapist who specializes in treating depression. SAD can trigger or worsen other forms of depression, and working with a therapist can help you manage your symptoms.

Psychotherapy helps people build skills that strengthen their resilience. It can also open your mind to healthier, more positive thinking patterns that make it easier to cope with seasonal affective disorder. 

In therapy, you may learn how to better handle stress, debunk negative thoughts and identify and change unhealthy behaviors caused by SAD.

4. Start Medication 

Severe seasonal affective disorder may benefit from the use of antidepressants. Your doctor will first perform a thorough assessment to determine if your SAD requires antidepressant medication.

Because SAD symptoms vary among individuals, not everyone needs or wants to use medication. Luckily, there are a variety of lifestyle changes and non-pharmacological options you can try. 

In addition, you should not rely solely on medication to treat depression. Therapy, healthy habits and coping skills can all play a large role in your recovery. 

If you do decide to try antidepressants for seasonal affective disorder, your doctor may suggest you take them at the typical onset period each year. The doctor might suggest you continue to take medication after your SAD episode ends. This all depends on your personal needs and the severity of your depression.

By building a relationship with your doctor, you can confront the symptoms of SAD as a team. When you start taking medication, it’s especially important to have a doctor available who knows your case, listens to you and is always available to answer any questions or provide support. 

5. Make Your Own Treatment Plan

In addition to working with a doctor, you should also make your own seasonal affective disorder treatment plan. For many patients, symptoms may always be a part of their life. But with the right plan, they can manage their SAD and feel better even during their most difficult time of year.

Your personal treatment plan should target all of your specific SAD symptoms. For example, if you struggle with insomnia and sleeping regularly during the winter, a healthy sleep schedule is important.

You may find yourself sleeping too much in the winter, which can be just as unhelpful to your mental health. Aim for 6 to 8 hours each night, and avoid taking long naps during the day. 

Additional steps to manage SAD include:

  • Eating a well-balanced diet. Personal nutrition impacts your mental health, so aim for a diet that has plenty of vitamins and nutrients from fruits and vegetables. Avoid eating excessive carbs, takeout and processed snack foods. 

  • Spending time with friends and family. Although you may withdraw when you feel depressed, social connection eases the loneliness of depression. You don’t have to go out on the town or force yourself to attend events. Simply spending time together can make a big difference. 

  • Find Relaxation Techniques You Enjoy. Managing stress is an important element of depression treatment. You may decide to try a low-stress physical activity, like yoga or tai chi, or mindful meditation. Journaling, making art or even playing video games can all help manage stress. 

  • Take a Trip Somewhere Warm.  If possible, visiting a location with a warmer climate can help ease SAD. If you have summer SAD, then visiting a place with cooler temperatures may be beneficial. Taking a vacation can also give you some more free time to lower stress and practice self-care. 

Finding Care When You Need It

At Juno, we provide comprehensive healthcare for the entire family. Our medical experts offer fast, reliable service for affordable prices. Find a doctor who takes the time to listen to your experience, hear your concerns and make the difference you need when it comes to treating seasonal affective disorder. 

We help patients build long-term, trusting relationships with their physicians. Your health lasts a lifetime, and you deserve a provider who puts effort in getting to know you. Schedule an appointment with us today to connect with one of our doctors.

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