By Ioana Cozma
Updated: 18 September 2023 & medically reviewed by Morgan Blair
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) typically accompanies the onset of fall or winter. People with SAD may experience restlessness, depressive episodes, and fatigue. This article explains the symptoms of SAD, tips to alleviate them, and potential treatment venues.
Table of contents:
What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mental health condition also known as “winter depression” based on its shared similarities with depressive episodes. Additionally, the symptoms of SAD are more poignant during the winter months. However, a smaller proportion of individuals experience the reverse pattern, with more intense symptoms in the warmer months of summer and a better mindset during the colder season.
The typical symptoms of the seasonal affective disorder include:
Disinterest in daily activities
Longer sleep periods
Low sexual drive
Sugar and carb cravings
Tips for reducing depression during the dark winter months
Depending on the severity of your SAD symptoms, you may or may not receive medical treatment. The techniques below will help you whether or not you are prescribed an allopathic cure.
1. See sun first thing in the morning
Exposure to sunlight first thing in the morning triggers a much-needed cortisol release and adrenaline spike. These hormones allow you to feel more energetic earlier in the day. Conversely, later exposure to sunlight is associated with delayed cortisol release and less energy.
2. Use the physiological sigh technique
The physiological sigh technique is proven to alleviate stress after just one or three repetitions. The method implies drawing two short, fast breaths to fill your lungs with air, followed by a slow exhale.
3. Expose yourself to sunlight throughout the day
Similarly, sunlight puts your body in tune with your natural circadian rhythm, even if the day is cloudy. That means you can feel more rested during the day and sleep better through the night, thus alleviating symptoms of fatigue.
4. Go outdoors
Spending time outdoors lets your eyes absorb more natural light. Additionally, spending time outdoors has been linked to increased mood, specifically if you are in a natural environment.
5. Stay active throughout the day
Exercise is proven to relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety. Maintaining high activity levels throughout the day may alleviate mental fog and give you more energy because it is linked to cortisol, noradrenaline, and serotonin secretion.
6. Respect your bedtime
Having the same bedtime each night helps you fall asleep faster and reduce oversleeping. Therefore, you will have fewer naps throughout the day, feeling more rested and energetic.
7. Practice self-care
Self-care is essential in alleviating the symptoms of mental health conditions, including seasonal affective disorder. As such, eat healthy meals, pamper yourself occasionally, and give up alcohol or other recreational drugs. Instead, do activities that bring you joy.
8. Do the simple things first
Easy, manageable tasks like making your bed and choosing a nice outfit may give you a good start each morning. Completing these simple tasks promotes the release of dopamine, the so-called reward hormone. As a result, your mood will improve, and you will feel more motivated to complete other tasks.
9. Help others
Focusing on others has been proven to improve mood, which is one of the main problems with seasonal affective disorder. This technique will alleviate feelings of worthlessness associated with seasonal affective disorder and guilt.
10. Do breathwork
There are many breathing techniques you can try depending on your symptoms. Deep inhales, followed by short exhales, increase mental focus and energy. Conversely, superficial inhales coupled with prolonged exhales decrease stress and anxiety.
11. Try mindfulness
Mindfulness techniques keep you grounded in the present moment. They help you focus, alleviate stress, and help you tackle your daily activities.
Spending time with loved ones may increase your mood because you may feel more supported and well-understood. Outdoor activities with friends also expose you to more sunlight, decreasing stress levels.
13. Keep a journal
A journal will help you stay in contact with difficult feelings, explore potential causes, and understand your triggers. You may also use your journal to set goals and live intentionally.
14. Practice gratitude
Practicing gratitude has been shown to decrease stress levels and promote intentional living. The reason lies in a mindset shift. Instead of focusing on the negatives, your brain focuses on the positive aspects of life. This tactic reduces rumination, guilt, feelings of worthlessness, and other negative emotions of SAD.
What treatment options are available for SAD
Before prescribing a personalized treatment for your seasonal affective disorder, your physician will perform a physical exam, blood tests including thyroid screening and vitamin D levels, and a psychological evaluation. Here are potential options:
Light therapy entails exposing yourself to a bright light box immediately after waking up to accelerate the release of cortisol and noradrenaline. This therapy shows quick results after a few days but may produce adverse reactions in people with bipolar disorders.
Vitamin D supplements
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to low mood, depressive episodes, stress, and anxiety. People with seasonal affective disorder also typically have low levels of vitamin D.  If your blood panels show this deficiency, your physician may prescribe vitamin D supplements and increase sunlight exposure throughout the day.
A psychotherapist will decide what type of therapy is better suited for your condition. Talk therapy may help you address other triggers and mental health issues, whereas cognitive behavioral therapy may help you learn practical solutions for stress management and coping with stressors.
Some people with severe seasonal affective disorder may be prescribed antidepressants to relieve and prevent depressive episodes. Depending on your symptoms, you may need a new course of antidepressants each winter season. Alternatively, ketamine infusion has been shown to offer depression relief in some research trials.
Aromatherapy, a practice based on the use of essential oils, may decrease anxiety, sleep issues, and depression typically associated with SAD. Aromatherapy is thought to influence the brain area that controls your mood and internal clock, but the research is still limited.