Winter Is Coming: Tips Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

There are officially no more sunsets after 8 p.m. until 2024. The days are becoming shorter, the nights longer, and daylight savings is ending in mere weeks. You, like many people, may find yourself grappling with a common yet often underestimated condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Often referred to as the “winter blues,” SAD is a form of seasonal depression that typically occurs during the fall and winter months. The reduced sunlight and colder weather can trigger a range of symptoms that affect mood, energy levels, and overall well-being.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is linked to the reduced exposure to natural sunlight that occurs during the fall and winter months. This lack of sunlight can disrupt the body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm, and affect the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and melatonin, which play key roles in regulating mood and sleep. Basically, your happy hormones in your brain get sleepy and want to hibernate for the winter.
Because Utah can have long, dreary winters, Utahns are typically at a higher risk for SAD. These long winters also mean that Utahns have a higher-than-average prevalence of vitamin D deficiencies. Additionally, while research is still in development and not fully understood, there are studies emerging that suggest the lack of oxygen at higher altitudes is also a factor into SAD.

Symptoms include:

  • Feelings of sadness or low mood
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Fatigue and low energy levels
  • Changes in sleep patterns, including oversleeping or difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in appetite, under or overeating
  • Difficulty concentrating or brain fog
  • Social withdrawal
  • Thoughts or attempts of suicide

Here are six tips to manage Seasonal Affective Disorder:

  1. Light Therapy: Light therapy, or phototherapy, involves exposure to a bright light that mimics natural sunlight, usually via light therapy lamp. This treatment has shown to be effective in treating SAD by helping to regulate the body’s internal clock, improving mood, and increasing vitamin D. Light therapy boxes are widely available and affordable. Because light lamps can help regulate your circadian rhythm, it is vital to use it earlier in the day and not in the evenings or at night. If you’re going to use light therapy, it’s best to start now so as daylight savings ends and winter starts, you’re well into your therapy and your body is regulating its internal clock.
  2. Stay Active and Get Outside: Yes, it’s cold outside but getting outside, especially in the winter months, gets you a dose of vitamin D and keeps your body moving. Engaging in regular physical activity is a proven way to combat depressive symptoms as exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters. Try a brisk walk, yoga, or indoor workouts. Have a snowball fight, go skiing, or take the kids sledding. Get moving and get outside to make a significant difference in managing SAD.
  3. Socialize: It’s winter and our caveman brain wants to hibernate. Although it’s tempting to isolate yourself when it’s cold, dark, and miserable outside, maintaining social connections is crucial. Spend time with friends and family to find a sense of belonging and emotional support. Host a DnD night, go to those holiday parties, catch a feel-good movie with friends.
  4. Practice Coping Skills: Coping skills are important year round but if you suffer from SAD, they are even more important in the winter months. Helping your brain and body feel calm is a skill, just like playing a sport or an instrument but with consistent practice, you can train your brain to feel better. Try meditation, sit in a sound bath, call a friend, take deep breaths, or watch your favorite nostalgic movie. There are a million coping skills to try and finding what works for you can be a fun journey.
  5. Set a Routine: Many of us want to stay in our cozy sweats and warm bed in the winter. Develop a daily routine to help regulate your internal clock and provide a sense of structure. Aim for consistent sleep and wake times, meals, and daily activities. Be mindful of sleep hygiene too! Many screens emit light that disrupts our circadian rhythm so put away your phone, turn off the tv, and find other ways to unwind at night that don’t involve a screen.
  6. Seek Professional Help: If your symptoms are severe or persist despite trying these self-help strategies, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. We have many tips and tricks to help manage SAD. Also, check in with your doctor for a vitamin d blood test to see if you need a supplement (please consult your medical doctor before starting any supplements to ensure you do not have drug interactions or an underlying condition).
Seasonal Affective Disorder can be a challenging condition, but it’s important to remember that there are ways to manage its impact on your life. By incorporating light therapy, staying active, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, nurturing social connections, and practicing coping skills, you can take proactive steps to beat the winter blues and embrace the colder months with a positive outlook. If symptoms persist, don’t hesitate to reach out to a healthcare professional for guidance and support.