Seasonal Affective Disorder or Just the Winter Blues – Use These Strategies to Cope

It’s that time of year again – the holidays are over and now our days are seemingly just cold for no good reason. With frigid temps and less sunlight, it is easy to get into a winter slump and feel unmotivated to do much more than lay on the couch and periodically tell Netflix, “Yes, I’m still watching.” These feelings are common, sometimes even possible to dispel on our own, but they can also be more serious. So, how do you know when it is more than just the winter blues? And maybe more importantly, what should you do to lift your mood through colder months?

seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a type of depression that follows a change in the seasons. Most people with SAD feel depressive symptoms starting in the fall and continuing into the winter months. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Low energy, tiredness/sluggishness, problems with sleep (including over- or undersleeping)
  • Changes in weight/appetite
  • Feeling hopeless or guilty
  • Trouble concentrating or agitation
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

How common is SAD?

American Family Physician notes that SAD is four times more common in women compared to men, and is estimated to be affecting  between four and six percent of people in the United States. Another 10 to 20 percent of people in the U.S. may have a mild form of the condition.

I spoke with therapist Laura Holmes to learn more about SAD and how to treat the condition. While most people in the U.S. who experience the winter blues don’t meet the symptoms for SAD, these coping strategies can also help combat less severe instances of winter sadness.

Should you see a doctor or therapist?

“It’s normal to have days where you feel sad, but there are also times when you need to get help,” says Holmes, MSW, LSW. “Don’t feel like you just need to brush off feeling blue or handle it yourself. Seek professional counsel if you’re feeling like you might harm yourself, if you go days at a time feeling hopeless or depressed or if you’re seeing big changes in your sleep and appetite.”

Since SAD is a seasonal condition, Holmes explained that it was perfectly acceptable to see a therapist once or just a few times. Therapists may offer you an initial consultation, and will start being able to recommend treatment, which may or may not include more talk therapy. For more information on how to find a therapist, read more here.

Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

There are several strategies that have been proven to be impactful in treating SAD. Holmes shared her recommendations, including:

Bundle up and get outside

Getting into the sun is one of the best ways to combat SAD. Holmes recommends layering up and spending time being active outside, such as going on a brisk walk.

“You may feel like laying around on the couch and [like] staying warm inside will make you feel good, but it’s actually the opposite,” says Holmes. “Sunlight and activity can help to lift your mood.”

If you’re working with a doctor, they may also recommend light therapy with a sun lamp. A typical recommendation is to sit with a sun lamp for 30 minutes per day, in the morning, to avoid messing with your nighttime sleep patterns.

Plan something fun

We’re all at least a little prone to want to hibernate the winter away, but isolation and inactivity ends up making us feel worse versus better.

“Push yourself to do things you enjoy,” urges Holmes. “That might mean being with people or whatever it is that you like to do. Don’t avoid your favorite activities simply because it is cold outside.”

In order to give yourself that extra push, get out your calendar and start planning out your activities. Having something to look forward to is highly motivating. Consider booking a trip to somewhere warm this winter or just get a girls night on the calendar for next week.

“When you’re depressed, your mood and motivation go down, so you need to push yourself,” says Holmes. “Having social activities to look forward to can help.”

Embrace the cold

Holmes also recommends trying to experience uniquely winter activities versus avoiding the outdoors.

“Embracing things you can only do in the winter, like sledding, ice skating and winter sports, have a wealth of benefits,” explains Holmes. “These activities give you something fun to look forward to and they get you outside, being active, in the sunlight.”

Manage your habits

It’s important to maintain good sleeping and eating habits throughout the winter. Try to get the same amount of sleep as normal; too much or too little sleep can be equally harmful. And, while cheesy or creamy (or both!) comfort food seems like a good idea at the time, it is important to fill your body with the vitamins and nutrients it needs to thrive.

“Don’t forget nutrition just because it is winter – fuel your body with the healthy food it craves,” explains Holmes.

Happiness Think & Feel

About Emily Baseman

Emily Baseman considers herself a fitness generalist. A firm believer that wellness is found by giving your body what it deserves, she is dedicated to working out regularly, drinking lots of water, and eating plenty of vegetables. From barre to HIIT to yoga to cycling, Emily loves to work up a sweat running around to take in a little bit of everything. She is a midwestern transplant to Washington, DC, currently working, cooking, and exploring the fitness scene in our nation's capital. By day, Emily helps social impact brands and nonprofits use social media to tell their philanthropic stories. She's obsessed with her dog, Bascom, red wine, and cheese of all kinds.