10 Ways To Avoid Seasonal Depression

As seasons change from warm sunny days to cold, cloudy ones, many people struggle with their emotions and mood.

If you find that the shortage of sunlight in fall and winter leaves you feeling a sense of fatigue or sadness, having difficulty sleeping, or engaging in comfort eating, you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is a type of depression that occurs during a specific time of the year. Generally, it occurs during the fall and winter months when less sunlight is available. However, some people can also experience SAD during the spring or summer.

Have you considered clinical trials for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What causes seasonal affective disorder?

Experts aren’t exactly sure what causes SAD. However, research suggests that it may be related to reduced exposure to sunlight¹, leading to changes to our body’s internal clock (circadian rhythms). 

This may cause our biological rhythms to become out of sync, potentially disrupting biological processes. These include the production of serotonin and melatonin, which are important for sleep and mood regulation. 

A diagnosis of SAD usually involves identifying if the depression episodes occur during specific seasons for at least two consecutive years

These seasonal depression episodes should also outnumber nonseasonal depression episodes.

The symptoms of SAD go beyond just “feeling blue” and may include:

  • A change in appetite, with specific cravings for carbs 

  • Weight gain 

  • Low energy/constantly feeling tired

  • Irritability/difficulty concentrating 

  • Oversleeping

  • Withdrawal

  • Feelings of hopelessness

If you are experiencing SAD symptoms, you are not alone. Approximately 4 to 6%² of people in the US experience SAD yearly, and another 10 to 20% may experience a mild form of SAD. Women are also four times more likely³ to experience SAD than men. 

SAD is also common among younger people, with the risk declining as you become older. People with a family history of SAD or who live far from the equator are also more susceptible to SAD

Ways to ease SAD symptoms

Although SAD only lasts for a few months, there’s no reason you shouldn’t seek treatment to ease your symptoms. Treatments are available to help improve your overall well-being and provide some relief during the colder months. 

Read on to learn more about ten scientifically-backed strategies to help you cope with SAD

1. Light therapy

Light therapy is considered an important treatment for SAD and involves sitting in front of a light box containing broad-spectrum lights. 

Typically, this involves 20-60 minutes of light exposure, depending on the light’s intensity and wavelengths. 

Through mimicking natural sunlight, it is believed that light therapy may improve SAD symptoms by realigning our biological rhythms and regulating melatonin. 

Light can also influence mood by regulating serotonin, an essential hormone affecting mood and circadian rhythms. 

For best results, experts recommend using light boxes first thing in the morning. They can be used while doing other activities such as working, watching TV, or reading. 

If you have a pre-existing eye condition, consult your doctor first. Alternatively, other effective ways to be exposed to light include: 

  • Taking walks during daylight hours 

  • Exercising outside 

  • Readjusting your workplace to allow more light through the window

2. Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy designed to treat mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

This usually involves working with a trained mental health professional to help identify problematic thinking and adopt more healthy ways of thinking and reacting. 

CBT has also been proven to be effective in treating SAD. In a clinical trial⁴ where patients were randomized in exposure to six weeks of CBT or light therapy, the study observed that CBT and light therapy were effective treatments. 

However, compared to light therapy, patients who used CBT to relieve SAD symptoms were less likely to experience recurrences of SAD symptoms two years following treatment. 

This shows CBT as a potential long-term treatment for SAD, but it may be a practical alternative to remembering to use light therapy daily. CBT and light therapy may also be used together. 

3. Antidepressants

Because SAD is considered a major depressive disorder, medications can also relieve symptoms

Depending on symptom severity and its impact on your daily life, your doctor may prescribe antidepressants, usually taken from autumn to spring. 

Several types of antidepressants can be prescribed, including: 

  • Selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) - used as a treatment for depression by preventing the reabsorption of serotonin into nerve cells, increasing serotonin levels in the brain

  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) - block serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake into nerve cells, thereby increasing chemical levels in the brain.

  • Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) - prevent the reabsorption of serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine

  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) - inhibits monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine

4. Exercise

Exercise is a highly recommended treatment for depressive disorders, and there is evidence to suggest it helps alleviate SAD symptoms. 

Following a 12 day schedule consisting of 20-30 minutes’ worth of bicycle training, a study⁵ found a reduction of depressive symptoms for people with and without a previous history of SAD. 

Exercise may ease seasonal depression as effectively as CBT, light therapy, and medications. 

5. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is involved in many of the body’s regulatory processes. Also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is obtained through exposure to sunlight and consumption of certain foods.

A recent review⁶ has found that low vitamin D levels may be associated with depression and that supplementation could be a potential treatment. However, evidence demonstrating this has been inconsistent. 

Another review⁷ suggests that it may depend on various factors such as dosing and when vitamin D is administered. 

Taking too much vitamin D can make you feel unwell, so it’s good to talk to your doctor if you are considering or already taking vitamin D to relieve SAD symptoms. 

6. Socializing

People tend to stay indoors for longer periods as the weather turns colder. A study⁸ has suggested a link between poor social support and seasonal affective disorder.

Keeping in touch with friends and family could be a great mood booster.

This could involve going for a walk with others, meeting for coffee, or even hanging out digitally. Alternatively, finding a hobby or joining groups with shared interests, such as book clubs or sports teams, can motivate you to socialize.

7. Balanced diet

Research⁹ has shown that food and nutritional supplements can influence the development of major depression and other brain processes.

Food is thought to affect certain appetite-regulating neurotransmitters in our brains, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

Studies¹⁰ have proven the importance of a balanced diet in preventing and treating depression symptoms. Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet is vital for physical and mental health.

Certain vitamins and minerals can help, including:

  • Omega 3s - a type of fatty acid found in seafood, flaxseeds, walnuts, and plant oils can have therapeutic effects 

  • B vitamins - water-soluble vitamins which can help regulate mood 

  • Zinc - a mineral commonly found in meats and fish that can assist in treating depression

  • Folate - also known as vitamin B9, folate is believed to be essential for the production of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

  • Antioxidants - found in fresh fruits and vegetables that can influence depressive symptoms

8. Journaling

Writing down your thoughts or keeping a journal may help reduce negative feelings and emotions. A 2013 study¹¹ found that journaling decreased feelings of depression.

Journaling can be flexible and allows you to be as creative as you want. When journaling, make sure to express your thoughts, feelings, and concerns. Doing so can help you gain perspective to prioritize problems and identify your depression triggers. 

9. Dawn simulators

Dawn simulators are a type of light therapy typically presented in the form of an alarm clock. 

Instead of the usual alarms that wake you up with the sound, these clocks work by gradually producing bedside light over a set time (usually 60 to 90 minutes) before you would typically wake up. Doing so encourages you to wake up naturally.

In a study¹² of 40 people with SAD, researchers found that dawn simulation therapy reduced depression levels similar to bright light therapy.

Some people may prefer dawn simulators as they can receive light without actively spending time in front of a light box.

10. Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves actively paying attention to one’s surroundings, thoughts, and emotions in a non-judgmental manner. 

Practicing mindfulness can help with emotional regulation as your brain must focus on the present moment when negative thoughts appear. 

Although research for the effectiveness of mindfulness in seasonal affective disorder is still ongoing, other studies¹³ have found that mindfulness-based meditation effectively prevents the return of a mood disorder, especially when combined with other treatments. 

Some examples of mindful techniques include:

  • Meditation

  • Body scans

  • Active breathing

  • Yoga/stretching

When should I see a doctor?

Finding the right treatment for seasonal affective disorder can be tricky and involve trial and error.

If you find that lifestyle modifications and other non-medical treatments do not provide enough relief, consider seeing your doctor or a trained mental health professional.

This is especially important if you have difficulty falling asleep/maintaining sleep, experience an unexplained change in appetite, or begin to have suicidal thoughts.

The lowdown

SAD is more than just feeling blue during winter, and although you can’t change the season, there are treatments available to help.

If you can predict when your symptoms may start, it can help to begin treatments beforehand to minimize any significant changes to your physical and mental health.

If lifestyle changes or any of the treatments above are not providing relief, consider making an appointment with your doctor or a trained mental health professional.

They can help by providing a mental health assessment and referring you to other specialists if needed.

Have you considered clinical trials for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Discover which clinical trials you are eligible for

Do you want to know if there are any Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) clinical trials you might be eligible for?
Have you taken medication for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
Have you been diagnosed with Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?