Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

This message of #WeeklyWisdom is brought to you by Moira McJury of Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County, a proud partner of the Community Coalition for Healthy Youth.

As the weather starts to change and a much earlier sunset makes the days feel shorter, many people are experiencing changes in their emotional state. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs around the same time each year, typically during the winter. Also known as seasonal depression, SAD affects 1-2% of the population, especially women and young people. A milder form of “winter blues” is estimated to affect 10-20% of people. Like non-seasonal depression, SAD can impact one’s mood, sleep, appetite, and energy levels. It can take a toll on relationships, social life, work, and school. Many people who experience SAD report feeling like a different people compared to who they are in the summer: sad, stressed, and tense, with little to no interest in hobbies or activities that would normally excite them.

The exact cause of SAD is not known, but most theories speculate that it is caused by the reduction of daylight hours during the winter months. Shorter days and reduced sunlight exposure are thought to negatively impact the body by disrupting the circadian rhythms, melatonin production, and serotonin production. Circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock; it responds to changes in light and dark in order to regulate sleep, mood, and appetite. This internal clock can be disrupted by the short, dark days of winter, leaving you groggy, disoriented, and sleepy.

When it gets dark, your brain produces melatonin to promote sleep; when it’s sunny, the brain stops this production, so you feel awake and alert. The short days and long nights of winter may cause your body to produce too much melatonin, leaving you drowsy and low on energy. This reduced sunlight can also lower your body’s production of serotonin, whcch can lead to depression and a negative impact on sleep, appetite, memory, and interest in other activities.

There are steps to be taken that can help to prevent and manage seasonal depression. Some of the top recommended tips by doctors and therapists include:

  • Light therapy. Otherwise known as phototherapy, light therapy aims to replace the missing daylight of winter by exposing you to bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Daily exposure can suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin to help you feel more awake and alert, less drowsy and melancholy. It has been shown to be effective in up to 85% of SAD cases. There are two different ways of administering light therapy:
    • A light box is a device that delivers light with up to ten times the intensity of normal domestic lighting. The light box emits a controlled amount of white light, with harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays filtered out. Be sure to consult a doctor, as this can trigger mania in those with bipolar disorder.
    • A dawn simulator is a device that gradually increases the amount of light in your bedroom in the morning to simulate the rising sun and wake you up. Instead of waking in darkness, you wake to what looks like a sunny morning. This can help reset your circadian rhythm and improve your mood.
  • Get as much natural sunlight as possible. Get outside during daylight hours and expose yourself to the sun. Sunlight, even in the small doses that winter allows, can help boost serotonin levels and improve your mood.
    • Take a short walk outdoors or have your coffee outside every day.
    • Increase the amount of natural light in your home and workplace by opening blinds and drapes and sitting near windows.
    • Some people find that painting walls in lighter colors or using daylight simulation bulbs helps to combat winter SAD.
  • Exercise regularly, especially outdoors during sunlight hours. Regular exercise is a highly effective way to fight depression. It can boost serotonin, endorphins, and other chemicals that help to improve mood. Exercise can also help to improve your sleep and boost your self-esteem.
    • Find exercises that are continuous and rhythmic. The most benefits for depression come from rhythmic exercise (like walking, weight training, swimming, martial arts, or dancing) where you move both your arms and legs.
  • Reach out to family and friends. Close relationships are vital in reducing isolation and helping you manage SAD. It may feel more comfortable to retreat into your shell but interacting with others will boost your mood.
    • COVID-19 has certainly taken a toll on how we interact with others. If you are unable to safely be in-person with loved ones, schedule weekly video chats or phone calls.
    • Join a support group for depression. Sometimes, talking about what you’re going through and being with others who are facing the same problems can reduce your sense of isolation and help you feel better.
    • Volunteer your time (in a COVID-19 safe manner). Helping others is one of the best ways to feel better about yourself, expand your social network, and overcome SAD.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Eating well-balanced meals throughout the day, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, will help you keep your energy up and minimize mood swings.
    • Foods such as oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, and bananas can boost your feel-good serotonin levels without the subsequent sugar crash.
    • Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats (such as oily fish, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseeds) can also improve your mood and may even boost the effectiveness of antidepressant medication.
  • Take steps to deal with stress. Whatever the time of year, too much stress can exacerbate or trigger depression.
    • Identify the things in your life that cause stress, such as work overload or unsupportive relationships, and make a plan to avoid them or minimize their impact.
    • Practicing daily relaxation techniques can help you manage stress, reduce negative emotions such as anger and fear, and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation.
    • Do something you enjoy every day. You can’t force yourself to have fun or experience pleasure, but you can push yourself to do things, even when you don’t feel like it. You might be surprised at how much better you feel once you’re out and about.

The effectiveness of these tips can vary from individual to individual. Most importantly, never hesitate to contact a licensed counselor or therapist for help. If you are experiencing suicidal ideation or emotional crisis, these crisis lifelines are available 24/7:

-National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

-Crisis Text Line: Text 741-741 with the message “START”

-LGBTQ National Youth Talk Line: 1-800-246-PRIDE (800-246-7743)

-Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

-GLBT National Help Center: 1-888-THE-GLNH (888-843-4564)

-Crisis Call Center: 1-800-273-8255

For more information: