Beat the Winter Blues: Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Over the course of the year, seasons change, daylight varies, and—depending where you live—snow or rain may be eminent. But even in milder climates, you might find yourself affected by the “winter blues” from the lack of sunshine inherent with shorter days. This phenomenon is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). You may notice shifts in habits and feelings of well-being as the days grow longer and shorter.

So, no, you’re probably not stuck in a bad mood or going crazy. There’s a legitimate reason for feeling down when there’s less sunshine than normal. Learn what causes seasonal affective disorder and 10 ways to cope with the most common symptoms.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a biochemical imbalance in the brain. SAD is prompted by shorter daylight hours and less exposure to the sunshine your body uses as a sign to produce chemicals and hormones for wakefulness or sleepiness.

It’s estimated 10–20 percent of people globally are affected by SAD. Those living far from the equator are more likely to experience SAD, and the disorder is four times more common in women than men. Generally, you become less prone to SAD as you age, with 18-30 being the most at-risk age.

A number of symptoms and behaviors point to seasonal affective disorder, including:

  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of interest in activities or social events
  • Problems with sleep—both oversleeping and difficulty getting restful sleep
  • Overeating and craving simple carbohydrates
  • Changes in weight
  • Loss of energy
  • Restlessness or nervous habits

These symptoms are associated with SAD, but they also could be signs of a condition beyond the winter blues. It’s recommended to consult your health-care advisor if you experience any of these symptoms long-term.

The Science Behind SAD

Let’s shine a little more light on SAD. Seasonal affective disorder is caused by fluctuations in your circadian rhythm (your internal, biological clock). That’s why you’re more likely to experience SAD the further you are from the equator—the shorter the day, the greater the effect.

Your retinas normally receive special cues from exposure to sunlight, triggering the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Reduction in sun exposure causes a dip in this naturally produced brain chemical. With SAD, there are seasonal fluctuations in the regulation of serotonin levels in the brain, as well. Most people know serotonin for its mood-balancing properties, but it also helps your body maintain health from your bones to your bowels.

Insufficient light in the day may also cause an overproduction of melatonin, the hormone responsible for your sleep-wake cycle. So, condolences to those who live in Juneau (Alaska’s capital city) who receive only six hours and 22 minutes of sunlight during the winter solstice. Others have it even worse. Rjukan, Norway doesn’t naturally receive sunlight six months out of the year. 

Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD isn’t new. The disorder was first reported by scientist Norman E. Rosenthal in 1980 from The National Institute of Mental Health. Over time, studies and trials have found effective ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder.

Try these tips if you feel SAD symptoms. Even if you haven’t felt symptoms due to shorter days, anyone can benefit from these holistic lifestyle tips.

Seek Professional Advice

Common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder overlap with depression. If you think you’re experiencing depression, seek medical attention. For milder symptoms, consult your health-care advisor. Either way, it’s always good to talk with professionals before making lifestyle changes.

Eat A Healthy Diet

Eating a variety of wholesome foods is central to a life of good health. Certain nutrients, like vitamin D, help your body with normal bone mineralization, which might be affected by less exposure to the sun’s rays. Magnesium and coenzyme Q10 are used by the body to generate energy in your cells, and B vitamins play an important role in maintaining a healthy metabolism. Here are a few sources of these beneficial nutrients:

  • Vitamin D: fatty fish, cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms, and foods fortified with vitamin D
  • Magnesium: green leafy vegetables, avocados, bananas, raspberries, nuts, and seeds
  • B vitamins: whole grains, red meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds

One key indicator of seasonal affective disorder is craving simple carbohydrates like non-diet soda, baked treats, and breakfast cereals. These foods provide little satiety and often lead to more cravings. Reach for healthy fats, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources. They’re more satisfying, and often include valuable nutrients like those listed above.

Make Sleep a Priority

There are many reasons to savor a good night’s sleep. Maintaining proper sleep habits is a lot of work, but the physiological benefits to restful slumber are well worth it. First, maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle. Go to bed at the same time every night whenever possible, and set a waking alarm for the same time every day, seven days a week. This means no cheating on the weekends. Keep in mind, it can take four days to recover for every hour of “sleep debt” accrued. So, waking up at the same time will help your body adjust, and you should start to feel naturally tired at the end of the day.

Second, avoid invigorating activity within an hour of bedtime, and abstain from stimulants like coffee in the evening. Cocktails are off-limits, too. They can help you fall asleep, but alcohol inhibits REM sleep cycles. Find a screen-free, calming activity that works for you. Try meditation, writing in a journal, listening to music or a podcast, reading a book, or simply brewing the perfect pot of caffeine-free tea.

Beat the Winter Blues

The shorter the days, the more cognizant you need to be about spending time outside while it’s still light. Set a reminder. Otherwise, by the time you remember to head out, the sun may already be down. Try to take a brisk walk at lunch, go for a run, take phone calls outside, or do whatever you can to grab some time outdoors. Even in colder climates, you can find the motivation to get outside on the snowiest days.

It can be challenging to sneak in outdoor time. But, with the extra energy you’ll have from high-quality sleep, backed by fuel from healthy foods, your body will be up for the task.

Work It Out

For many folks, summertime means exploring their surroundings by foot without a second thought. As the days darken, it’s harder to carve out time for these activities. If you find yourself adventuring less as the days shorten, commit to working out several days a week to compensate. Adequate exercise is one of the best ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder. There are many physiological benefits to working out, and it’s another excuse to keep moving when the couch starts calling your name. Plus, working out can be a social activity, which has its own SAD-stomping benefits you’ll read about later.

You don’t have to drive to the gym to enjoy the benefits of a good sweat session. When it’s pitch-black out and the last thing you want to do is leave the house, there are plenty of workouts you can do at home.

Build a Brighter Day

If you’re like those living in Rjukan who seriously lack natural light sources, sometimes you have to make your own sunshine. There are various light therapy lamps available—nightstand lamps, glasses lined with gentle blue lights, even full-blown luminary saunas. Studies show that getting bright light first thing in the morning after waking, is better than light therapy later in the day. While this kind of SAD solution doesn’t work for everyone, it has been shown to be effective in several studies. So, it’s well worth a try to beat the winter blues.

Make Time to Socialize

A healthy social life brings a host of mental and physical benefits and is a great solution to cope with seasonal affective disorder. Bonus: it pushes you out of the house (or, if it’s your turn to host the party, spurs some extra cleaning). Socializing is associated with better overall health, and maintaining a larger social network is a key predictor of positive mental health outcomes throughout life.

Invite friends over for a snack tray social, casual trivia night, or hunker down with board games. Whatever you do doesn’t have to require a lot of effort or expense. Being together is enough to help tackle SAD symptoms.

Find Your Zen

Meditation has benefits beyond bedtime routines. Even a minute of mindfulness can bring a calm detachment, returning your mind to the present, and reminding you to keep calm and carry on. To help find your Zen, try this breathing exercise:

  1. Assume a comfortable, relaxed position and close your eyes.
  2. Breathe slowly, taking pauses between exhale and inhale.
  3. Clear your mind and count out 50 breaths.
  4. Each time a thought pops into your head—and, inevitably, many will—pause counting.
  5. Continue breathing and recite the phrase “I am aware of ______,” listing the object of your thought.
  6. Once your mind is clear again, resume counting breaths.

Serve Others

Donating your time in the service of others has many physical, mental, and social benefits. This makes it one of the best ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder. Taking your mind off your problems to focus on caring for others is a natural way to relieve the stresses that build up from lowered serotonin levels. Gratitude helps you deal with anxiety and grief by contributing to your brain’s release of dopamine and serotonin.

Write a Letter

Writing to friends and family is a good way to keep in touch, and it’s a wonderfully unexpected surprise for the recipient. Hand writing takes more effort than typing, but that’s the point. The brain processes differently when writing longhand versus typing. That’s because there’s more method and nuance when you pick up a pen. If you’re not sure where to begin, try writing a gratitude letter to yourself as a small reminder of why you’re grateful.

A Brighter Tomorrow

If you find yourself in the rut of seasonal affective disorder, remember there’s light at the end of the tunnel—literally. Seasons eventually change and longer, brighter days are ahead.

As you figure out the best ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder, you’ll notice how much overlap there is in the above list. Writing gratitude letters in the evening checks several boxes, as does volunteering to pack food at a local charity. So, focus on addressing your SAD symptoms in ways that fit your life.

Setbacks are to be expected. Don’t get discouraged. It’s natural to get frustrated when your body doesn’t just work the way it should. But it’s important to focus on your whole self, taking care of your body and mind. Bonus points if you do it all year long and not just when the winter blues set in. Ask for help if you need it, reach out to friends and family, or talk to a medical professional. Before you know it, even the darker, shorter days will look better and brighter.