In the cold, dark winter months, many people find themselves with less energy and motivation to go about their everyday lives. In some cases, this impairment is enough for people to meet the criteria for a depressive disorder called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression.
If you struggle with the winter blues or notice that your mood tends to decline when the days get shorter, you may struggle with seasonal depression. Luckily, there are steps you can take to improve your energy levels and get back to feeling your best.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD, or seasonal depression, is a type of depression directly related to the changing seasons, and for a lot of people, it happens at the same time each year. It shares many of the signs and symptoms of major depressive disorder and can be just as debilitating. The symptoms of seasonal depression include:
- Sleep difficulties
- Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
- Feelings of hopelessness or despair
- Lowered energy levels
- Difficulty concentrating
- Weight changes
Although seasonal depression can happen during any season, most people experience SAD during winter. Seasonal depression is more common in places further away from the equator where the change in seasons is more pronounced.
Why Does Seasonal Depression Happen?
During the winter months, the days get shorter. Being exposed to less light from the sun can disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm, making it more difficult to get restive and restorative sleep.
A lack of sunlight can also interfere with the brain’s natural levels of serotonin and melatonin, which can lead to disruptions in mood and may contribute to a depressive episode.
Another contributing factor is that people often socialize less during winter than they do in spring or summer. Cold, rain, and snow can get in the way of outdoor activities, leaving people to either socialize inside or not at all.
People who experience seasonal depression often struggle to maintain their daily obligations and responsibilities. They may feel guilty, worthless, or have thoughts of suicide. Seasonal depression is a serious diagnosis and should not be taken lightly.
Coping with Seasonal Depression
Fortunately, there are tools that can lessen the impact seasonal depression has on your life. You may be able to find relief with ith behavioral tools, supplements, technology, and professional help. Depending on the severity of your seasonal depression, you can try just some of these strategies or combine them all together.
Behavioral Tools for Seasonal Depression
Behavioral tools are simple strategies that you can incorporate into your everyday life. The three techniques can help you manage the symptoms of seasonal depression during the winter:
Exercise isn’t just a helpful tool for clinical depression; it can also help alleviate many of the effects of SAD. This is because exercise can boost essential neurotransmitters associated with depression, such as dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline. It can also help support your metabolism, improve sleep quality, and regulate stress hormones.
In the winter, it’s often difficult to exercise outdoors. Try starting a home workout routine or join a local gym. Exercise doesn’t have to be a big production – dancing in your kitchen can be a great workout!
2. Prioritize Socialization
Decades of research have shown that strong social connections are protective against several forms of depression. Spending time with your friends can seem to be more difficult when you have seasonal depression, but prioritizing quality time can make you feel more nourished during the colder months, and you don’t have to plan an elaborate gathering to get the benefits.
Game nights, outdoor walks, or even just making the extra effort to talk to friends on the phone can be helpful for those with seasonal depression. If you have a long to-do list, consider partnering up with a friend to run errands together.
It can be challenging to coordinate schedules during the holiday season, but starting the routine ahead of the seasonal change can help. Try setting up a regular hangout with your friends in the fall that you stick to every week or two. Starting when the temperature starts to drop can help you get in the habit of spending time together before winter sets in fully.
3. Get Outside
Even though winter is often the most difficult time to get outdoors, making an effort to bundle up and spend some of your day outside is an effective strategy for helping curb seasonal depression.
Many scientists believe that the lack of natural light indoors can contribute to seasonal depression. Try taking a walk outside in the afternoon when the light is strongest. For people with lighter skin, just 15 minutes a day is enough exposure to encourage vitamin D production. People with darker skin have more melanin, which protects the skin from absorbing UVB rays.
If you have darker skin, or you can’t get outside during the winter months, a vitamin D supplement may be a better option.
Supplementing for Seasonal Depression
Taking nutritional supplements may not be enough to reverse seasonal depression after it sets in, but you may be able to reduce your risk of developing seasonal depression if you start supplementing one vitamin in particular ahead of time. Of course, this supplement is vitamin D.
Your body creates vitamin D naturally through sun exposure. People who live in areas where there is minimal sunlight during the winter experience a dip in vitamin D levels during the winter months.
Lowered vitamin D is correlated with seasonal depression. Supplementing with vitamin D may help prevent the onset of depressive symptoms.
To get the full benefits of vitamin D supplementation, you’ll need to talk to your doctor ahead of time in the early fall, before natural light levels decline to their lowest. If you’re concerned about whether your vitamin D levels are low, your doctor can test your vitamin D levels and see if supplementation may work for you.
Technology to Help Seasonal Depression
Light therapy can improve the symptoms of seasonal depression for many people. High-powered lamps and light boxes mimic sunlight, offering relief from symptoms of sleepiness and fatigue.
Light therapy is particularly effective when used in the morning; early morning exposure helps keep your circadian rhythm from being disrupted during the dark winter months. Try sitting in front of a light box for about 30 minutes shortly after waking, while you eat breakfast, as you enjoy a cup of coffee, or while you prepare for your day.
Another technology that may help with seasonal depression is deep transcranial magnetic stimulation. Deep TMS uses electrical impulses to regulate the brain’s production of neurotransmitters, leading to improved mood and mental stability.
At Plus by APN, we use deep TMS as an FDA-approved treatment for major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxious depression, and smoking addiction. According to BrainsWay, 10-20% of people diagnosed with major depression struggle with seasonal symptom patterns. Deep TMS may be a helpful tool for clients struggling with seasonal depression.
Reaching Out for Professional Help
Sometimes, the symptoms of seasonal depression are too much for coping strategies. If you’ve tried all the techniques above with no relief, please consider reaching out to a therapist or psychiatrist for professional support.
Therapists can help people manage depression symptoms using:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Dialectical behavior therapy
- Motivational interviewing
These therapy styles focus on guiding clients toward new ways of thinking and acting so that they can better manage a depressive state.
A psychiatrist can offer a professional evaluation and in some cases, manage depression symptoms with medications. Seasonal depression can be just as severe as major depressive disorder, and many different antidepressants can work to treat seasonal depression. Psychiatrists can also determine if there are any other underlying barriers that may be impacting your mental health and recommend alternative treatments like ketamine-assisted therapy.
Combining psychiatric medication and talk therapy is often the most effective approach for treating seasonal depression, and other mental health symptoms in general.
How to Find Support for Seasonal Depression
You don’t have to suffer through seasonal depression. If you’d like to learn more about how All Points North can help you cope with seasonal affective disorder, reach out to our team to learn more about our treatment options. With in-person treatment centers in Malibu, Denver, and Edwards, Colorado, plus new locations opening soon,
- Lin, Tzu-Wei, and Yu-Min Kuo. “Exercise benefits brain function: the monoamine connection.” Brain sciences vol. 3,1 39-53. 11 Jan. 2013, doi:10.3390/brainsci3010039
- Nussbaumer, Barbara, et al. “Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: All Issues.” Cochrane Library, 8 Nov. 2015, https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/table-of-contents?volume=2021&issue=5.