9th November, 20206 min read

How to cope with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

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Healthily's medical team
Healthily's medical team
Alex Bussey
Alex Bussey
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The dark nights and short days of winter can impact the mood of some people. In fact, it’s thought that up to 1 in 5 people may experience mild winter blues.

But if changing weather and less daylight hours have a significant impact on your mood, you may have a more serious condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

This is a specific type of depression that normally occurs at the same time every year.

SAD can make you feel like you’re low on energy, or lead to a persistent low mood. It can also make you lose interest in everyday activities, cause irritability or trigger feelings of despair or worthlessness.

Some people with SAD also find they sleep for longer than normal, or struggle to get up in the morning.

You can also get SAD in summer, but the condition is much more common in the winter months.

You have a greater risk of developing SAD if:

  • you’re between 18 and 30
  • you’re a woman (women are thought to be 3 times more likely to get SAD than men)
  • you have a family history of SAD or another type of depression
  • you live in a country where there are long periods of darkness in the winter

Some people — especially older people — start to notice the symptoms of SAD when they start spending more time indoors. This might be because of an illness or an injury, or spending more time at home.

Girl standing alone in the park on a gloomy day (credit - BenAkiba)

Can I manage SAD at home?

If you have SAD and you’re struggling to cope with your emotions, it’s probably best to see a doctor. If your mood is low and you have thoughts of harming yourself, you'll need to seek medical attention immediately.

If you have mild symptoms such as low energy or low mood, or you find you’re sleeping more or getting less enjoyment from life, you may find the following tips helpful.

Get plenty of natural light

Sunlight is thought to encourage the release of a hormone called serotonin, which can boost your mood and help you feel calm and focused.

Try going for a short walk during daylight hours, or spend some time outside in the garden or a nearby park.

If you’re struggling to get outdoors, you can also try to make your home as light and airy as possible. For example, try opening all of your curtains and sit next to (or near) a window.

Get regular exercise

If you’re feeling low or tired, going for a run might not be high on your list of priorities. But it may be worth trying to work some exercise into your routine.

This is because exercise also encourages the release of feel good hormones (in this case endorphins) that can boost your mood.

Exercise also gives your brain something to focus on, and may help to boost your self-esteem and reduce your risk of depression. It’s probably best to exercise outside if you can so you can get plenty of natural light at the same time.

Mind, a UK-based mental health charity, says that dancing, walking and gardening all count as forms of exercise. Or you could just do some active household chores like vacuuming or DIY.

Young woman running in a park in the winter sun (credit - Drazen Zigic)

Try telling friends or family about your symptoms

Talking about your feelings can be very challenging, but telling family and friends about your symptoms may help them to understand what’s happening — and offer you some much-needed support.

If you can’t talk to family or friends in person, try organising a video chat, or call them on the phone. You could also text them or send an email if you’re feeling nervous about chatting face-to-face.

Try cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy that aims to help you combat negative thoughts or emotions.

It works by teaching you to recognise and challenge unhelpful thoughts, and it’s used to treat a variety of mental health problems from SAD to anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.

You can practice CBT at home using an online service like MoodGym, or an app like Braive to access step-by-step courses.

Practise some stress relief techniques

According to the UK’s National Health Service, managing stress may help you to stay on top of your symptoms.

You can do this by avoiding stressful situations whenever you can — or by practising some tried-and-tested stress-busting techniques.

This includes things like deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, or scheduling some personal time to reflect on your thoughts and feelings.

Man sitting at a table having light therapy treatment (credit - Rocky89)

What about light therapy for SAD?

Light therapy is where you use a special lightbox or lamp at home to simulate the sunlight you're missing out on during the winter months. These boxes produce a very bright light and you normally sit in front of them for 30 to 60 minutes at a time.

Some people find that this helps to improve their mood, but experts say it’s not clear if it’s an effective treatment for SAD.

If you want to try light therapy for yourself, keep an eye out for boxes that are medically approved for the treatment of SAD.

You should also remember that light therapy is not safe for people who have an eye condition like cataracts or conjunctivitis, which can make your eyes sensitive to bright light.

You should also avoid light therapy if you’re taking a medication that increases your sensitivity to light. Common examples include certain antibiotics, antipsychotics, or herbal supplements that contain St John’s wort.

If you’re not sure whether it’s safe for you to try light therapy, talk to a doctor. They'll be able to tell you whether it’s safe and explain any potential side effects.

Key points

  • seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a specific type of depression that often occurs at the same time every year
  • you can get SAD in summer, but it’s more common in winter
  • you can try to manage mild symptoms of SAD by spending time outdoors, and getting plenty of exercise
  • you may also find it helps to talk to your friends and family about your symptoms, or try a talking therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • trying to manage your stress may also help with your symptoms, but there’s less evidence to suggest that light therapy (using a lightbox) will help with SAD

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