Despite the joy that can come from holiday cheer, we are in the midst of the months when seasonal affective disorder (SAD) kicks in for many people.
If you are not familiar with SAD, it’s a mood disorder that can present with similar symptoms to depression. It doesn’t have to occur during the winter months, but due to the decrease in sunlight and cooler weather, it is a common time to see an increase in SAD.
Signs that you may have SAD are if you notice a similar time each year where you have heightened fatigue, depressed mood, increased hopelessness, increased social isolation, lack of motivation, increase/decrease in sleep or increase/decrease in appetite.
While we can’t always change the weather or the amount of sunshine we are exposed to, there are some things that are within our control that can help manage SAD and mitigate the experience of symptoms that occur for you.
Here are some tips for combatting SAD that I frequently turn to:
- Support system: Depression can be incredibly isolating and the thought of social engagement can feel insurmountable due to the symptoms you experience. Try and find a community that you feel safe around or a form of communication that still feels feasible. Maybe getting out and about is too hard these months, but, with technology, we can still Facetime or call people from the comfort of our couches and underneath warm blankets. Oftentimes, it’s the initial reaching out that is the hardest. But once I get talking, it quickly starts to set in how nice it is to talk. Try to find a few times a week when you interact with others and have social engagement in some form.
- Fuel your body: Being in the house more often in the winter means I tend to snack more frequently. Due to this, I try to keep easy, healthy snacks on hand. I know that when I eat better, I overall feel better, and that helps me feel more up to physical movement or social engagements.
- Keep moving: I know a favorite place for me to exercise is outside and in the winter months that isn’t enjoyable with the frigid cold. So, I switch up what I do indoors. One day I may do weights, another I may do yoga and sometimes I power through a cardio session on a machine. No matter how it looks, try to find a way to keep moving your body several times a week.
- Get outside: While I do not do nearly as much out in the winter months as I do the other months, I still try to get outside, especially when there is sunshine. It doesn’t have to be an extended amount of time, and it doesn’t have to be a rigorous exercise outside to have it be effective. But getting out in the fresh air and sun can be a big mood booster. For me, I find the calm silence of a snowfall uniquely captivating. So, even if it’s chilly, I try to step outside after or during snow and soak in the enthralling beauty.
- Happy Lights: I know where I live there has already been a long stretch of cloudy, dreary weather. Not seeing sunshine is a significant factor in my mood. To help combat this, I use a happy light. The specific one you get should come with directions on how to use it, but all of them are designed to help mimic sunlight and activate the various systems in our body that get activated when sunlight hits.
- Structure: Throughout the year I try to keep a similar structure to my days. This does not have to be exact to a “t”, but, for example, try to limit the number of days you lay in bed far later than usual due to depression or limit how late you stay up at night scrolling on technology. Work to keep a similar rhythm to your days as this familiarity can help with motivation and overall mood.
- Clean space: I may not be able to control the weather outside, but I sure can control my space inside. A quick sweep of the house, putting things away and lighting a candle can be a significant mood boost.
- Journal: Have a creative space to write down your emotions. Many people think of the typical pen and paper for journaling, which is great. But feel free to venture into numerous types of artistic expression. Maybe paint an experience you are wanting to process or create a music playlist to help you process it.
If you find that the presentation of your symptoms is debilitating and significantly affects your day-to-day activities, I would encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional for help. If you explore SAD and resonate with the symptoms, know that you are far from alone in experiencing this as there are more than 3 million reported cases in the US each year.
If it has already kicked in for you and motivation is low, look through the list above but don’t pressure yourself to implement all steps right away. Take it slow and pick an area that feels most relevant and obtainable for you to start to create change.
Baby steps are progress no matter how small.
Kylie Larson, MA, LPC