Seasonal affective disorder is more than the “winter blues.” Here, a therapist advises on how to manage.
With winter's arrival comes darkness, dry skin and chillier temps, all easily summed up in one word: ugh.
Though it might bum you out when night falls at 4:30pm, that sinking feeling isn't necessarily seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (otherwise aptly known as SAD). Those conditions impede daily function, making it impossible to go about your life. An estimated 10 million Americans are affected by SAD, with women four times more likely to experience it than men, according to Psychology Today.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Similar to depression, the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include feelings of hopelessness, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating and increased fatigue, irritability and withdrawal from social situations.
"SAD goes beyond the 'winter blues," says Lia Avellino, LCSW and advisor of Head & Heart at THE WELL. There is, however, a connection to the glumness of an early sunset. "Seasonal depression is also thought to be biochemical, but triggered by the shortage in light hours," says Avellino.
If symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are disrupting your life, seek guidance from an expert who can support you individually.
Check out this list of expert-approved coping mechanisms that, in conjunction with a medical professional's help, can be used to help treat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
How to Deal with Seasonal Depression
Avellino has an important reminder for those frustrated by a lack of motivation to do even the simplest of tasks — let alone this sort of tough self-work — over the winter months.
"Know that you likely won’t be 'in the mood' for many of these activities, but in this case, desire can follow will," says Avellino. "Sometimes getting what we need doesn’t feel good. It's like taking medicine. It might not taste good but it can help us heal."
Below, a few tips from for coping with seasonal depression, according to Avellino:
- Utilize light therapy. This long-practiced solution of using bright light to combat seasonal mood disorder, can induce a chemical change in the brain that can lift your mood. Light therapy specifically uses a light that mimics outdoor light, generally with an exposure of 10,000 lux of light and as little UV light as possible, explains Mayo Clinic.
- Get moving. Try ramping up your nervous system with movement and exercise, which has been proven to boost your mood and alleviate symptoms of depression thanks to the release of endorphins.
- Partake in self-expression. "When we are depressed, our system is in shutdown," says Avellino. "When we start to release the trapped energy, narratives, pain points, things begin to shift." Find a vehicle of self-expression that resonates with you — journal, paint, dance, meditate, read poetry, listen to music.
- Go outside, even if it’s cold. "We spend a lot of time inside in the winter, which cuts us off from nature," says Avellino. Nature is packed with healing benefits, both physical and mental. Prioritize getting time outside each day — even if it's a quick walk around your block.
- Turn up the volume on a mood-lifting playlist. Music has the power to improve your day — and research agrees. So press play on your favorite songs whenever you need a boost.
- Visualize. Your imagination can take you to better places. "Practice visualizations that transport you to tranquil places that you’ve been in the past or hope to go," says Avellino. Visualization can help you break the cycle of looping negative thoughts and encourage calm within the body.
- Switch up your routine. "Consider new rituals to establish a rhythm to your day," says Avellino. "As seasons change, our circadian rhythm shifts and we need to find what is nourishing, what helps get us out of bed and into our lives." Add something to your morning routine that gets you excited to start the day: Maybe it's setting aside 20 minutes to read a new book or stretching while listening to your favorite music — find what works for you.
- Phone a friend. Avellino recommends calling people who encourage and energize you. We are social beings (even the most introverted among us), so when wintertime feelings of isolation arise, connecting with a friend can do a lot to raise your spirit.
Remember: Spring Always Follows Winter
The dark of winter can instinctively make us withdraw, but experiencing the emotional effects of the season is natural. Avellino offers a way to reframe these chillier months: "The dark season reminds us that everything in life is impermanent. There was a season before and there will be a season after."
Remember the cyclical nature of the seasons and, if you feel up for it, use the winter months to turn inward. "Dark periods can be highly reflective and the beginning stages of growth — it’s the season when we turn in to nurture what we want to develop," says Avellino.
"Consider the snake. When she sheds her skin, she spends a lot of time alone, loses her appetite and is more susceptible to attack, but then she gets her new, tender skin and moves through her world with hunger and determination," she adds. In other words: Take the time to be with yourself and reflect on where you are — it can be great fuel to pave the way for where you want to go with the next change of season.