10 Self-Care Tips For Seasonal Affective Disorder

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is commonly known as the “winter blues” and is a type of major depressive disorder. SAD typically has a pattern of onset, occurring at the same time each year.

This disorder is especially bad in the winter or autumn seasons, with symptoms easing at other times of the year. People can be affected year-round. However, it’s much less common. SAD affects women¹ significantly more than it does men.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

Symptoms of SAD include the following: 

  • Feeling down or sad more often than not

  • A decrease in pleasure or interest for activities that you previously enjoyed

  • Changes in sleep, such as sleeping more

  • Changes in appetite, such as eating more

  • Weight gain or loss

  • Withdrawal from social activities

  • Feeling sluggish or increasingly tired

  • A sense of worthlessness or hopelessness

  • Difficulties in concentration

  • Repeated thoughts of death or dying

  • Feelings of guilt

Self-care tips

Treatment for seasonal affective disorder is often similar to that of clinical depression. However, methods to treat SAD generally focus on exposure to light since people often experience symptoms during the wintertime when less natural sunlight is available. 

You can incorporate multiple strategies into your daily life to help ease symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and even reduce the chance of it occurring. 

Here are some self-care tips for SAD:

1. Increasing exposure to natural sunlight

Since SAD, in part, results from a lack of sun exposure, getting adequate sunlight is one of the most effective ways to help relieve symptoms. 

This includes getting enough sunlight during the winter season when symptoms are generally at their worst. Aim for early morning sunlight for around 20 minutes of exposure whenever possible. 

Research² has shown that people with seasonal affective disorder significantly improved depression symptoms when exposed to natural sunlight. These people reported better mood, improved feelings of self-worth, and increased overall happiness. 

Some strategies that may be beneficial to maximize sunlight exposure safely include:

  • Positioning yourself near windows while working indoors 

  • Getting outdoors for a 20-minute walk at least five days per week

It’s very important that you don’t expose yourself to excessive amounts of sunlight as UV rays can be damaging at high levels and cause other problems such as premature aging and skin cancer

2. Light therapy

Often, it’s challenging to get enough natural sunlight in the winter months. Light therapy is another common treatment for seasonal affective disorder, and the aim is to compensate for the reduced natural sunlight available during the winter months. 

Light therapy works by exposing you to very bright light as you sit in front of a special light box. This exposure to light helps regulate circadian rhythms, which manages the sleep-wake cycle. 

It’s generally recommended that you sit for about 30 minutes each morning during autumn and winter, with your eyes open but not staring directly into the light box. 

You can purchase light boxes online, but you should seek medical advice before starting light therapy. 

This treatment may not be suitable for people with eye disease or who take certain medications.  

3. Establishing a regular sleeping routine

Following a consistent sleep-wake routine by going to bed and waking up at about the same time each day should help balance your mood. 

Since setting a bedtime is often difficult, it may be easiest to first focus on waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends. 

Natural circadian rhythms are disrupted due to seasonal affective disorder. This is because changes in the amount of sunlight during different seasons affect your sleep-wake cycle. 

Poor sleep quality can also lead to a worsening of depression symptoms. Sticking to structured sleep cycles for 6–8 weeks is recommended³ if you’re experiencing depression symptoms, as it can help restore a healthy sleeping pattern.

4. Exercise

Regular exercise benefits mental and physical health and can help you maintain a healthy and steady routine. 

Tips for removing common barriers to exercise include:

  • Ensuring exercise fits easily into your daily routine with an accessible location 

  • Selecting a form of exercise that you enjoy or at least endure well enough to continue to feel motivated to do it

  • Incorporating incidental exercise into each day, such as taking stairs instead of an elevator, doing more housework, or taking on hobbies such as gardening that can increase activity levels

  • Exercising as much as possible outdoors and in the daytime for the added benefit of natural sunlight exposure 

5. Stress management

During the winter, when feelings of depression are heightened, people often feel less able to cope with stress, causing a worsening of depression symptoms.

Some strategies to reduce stress related to SAD are:

  • Proper planning to avoid being overburdened by tasks, commitments, or stressful activities during the winter season, when coping mechanisms might not be as strong

  • Delaying major decisions until symptoms have improved

  • Mind-body practices such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi

  • Relaxing activities such as getting a massage or reading

6. Counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy

Although it’s common to withdraw when living with SAD, having open and honest conversations with a supportive person can be very beneficial. It may help you feel understood and not so alone in your suffering. 

It also helps manage stress levels that come with the disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy⁴ is a psychotherapy treatment as effective as light therapy in treating the seasonal affective disorder. 

Some options for effective communication with others include:

  • Joining a support group for seasonal affective disorder

  • Finding a therapist

  • Finding a supportive friend or family member to communicate with regularly

7. Proper nutrition and eating patterns

Norman Rosenthal, the doctor who first documented SAD, has recommended a range of diet options⁵. 

A diet rich in unprocessed foods, proteins (lean meats, seafood), vegetables, fruits, and complex carbohydrates is recommended and can protect against mental health disorders. 

Avoiding high-sugar foods such as refined grains, pasta, candy, soft drinks, and processed foods with added sugar is also important.

People experiencing depression symptoms associated with the seasonal affective disorder tend to have cravings for high-sugar and high-carbohydrate foods, which can sometimes be uncontrollable. This is likely to compensate for their reduced energy levels and soothe emotional distress. 

However, this results in only a temporary spike in energy levels and leaves you feeling tired, continuing the sugar craving cycle, which generally leads to weight gain. 

One study⁶ showed that people with SAD had a much higher intake of starch-rich foods (potatoes, bread, rice, pasta, etc.) in every season except for summer and a reduced dairy intake in the winter season. These seasonal fluctuations were not seen in people without the disorder. 

Adopting a low-sugar diet should reduce cravings. However, complex carbohydrates are necessary for regulating mood, and eating certain carbohydrates has been shown to relieve symptoms of SAD.  

Interestingly, some studies⁷ have shown that when people with SAD followed a diet high in healthy carbohydrates, they felt less tense and had fewer depression symptoms than those who followed a high protein diet. However, this association was not found in other studies. 

The important thing is to focus on eating whole, healthy foods and reducing sugar intake. 

8. Socializing

Social withdrawal is one symptom of SAD and can worsen feelings of isolation and loneliness. Social contact is essential to our overall happiness and sense of belonging, but our type of social interactions also seems to matter.

One particular study⁸ revealed that face-to-face contact was a strong factor in reducing someone’s risk of depression. It was significantly more effective than purely virtual interactions or socializing over the phone.

The frequency of contact was also important, with people meeting others three or more times per week reporting the biggest decrease in depression symptoms. The researchers also noted that interactions should be with trusted and supportive people rather than people with whom you might experience conflict.

Social interaction is a significant factor in protecting against depression. People living with depression should try to increase the frequency of social interactions as much as possible, especially throughout the winter season when feelings of well-being are at their lowest.

Some useful methods of connecting with others include:

  • Making time to see friends or family

  • Partaking in group exercise or going for walks with a friend

  • Joining a community group or starting a hobby that involves others

9. Vitamin supplementation

Vitamins are essential components of diet and are vital for life. They are naturally found in food or can be obtained via supplements when higher doses are required.

Maintaining good levels of specific vitamins and nutrients helps regulate mood and energy levels. This can be powerful support if you’re suffering from depression symptoms.

Of course, it’s important to consult a medical professional before taking higher doses of vitamins for non-medical use, as excess amounts of vitamins in the body can have damaging effects.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is responsible for many bodily processes, including mood regulation.

Research has shown that symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can be relieved through vitamin D⁹ supplements.

Supplements can be bought over the counter or prescribed in higher doses by a clinician. Since vitamin D is fat-soluble, you should take it with a larger meal or one high in fats for proper absorption.

However, some investigations¹⁰ have noted that vitamin D was not effective in reducing depression symptoms, so it’s important to consult your healthcare provider to understand what may work for you.

B vitamins

B vitamins are a group of vitamins involved in many mental processes, including energy production.

B vitamins are found naturally in foods such as vegetables (especially leafy greens), whole grains, eggs, fruits, fish, liver, and other animal proteins.

Vitamins B1, B3, B6, B9, and B12 are important in brain functioning, and deficiencies have been associated with depression.

B-complex supplements are a great way to get a full range of the different B vitamins. It’s also recommended to avoid excess caffeine and alcohol, which can deplete vitamin B levels in the body.

10. Behavioral activation

Behavioral activation¹¹ is a technique used in therapy to help you find enjoyable activities to make up for a lack of interest when you’re suffering from SAD.

Engaging in pleasant activities helps improve mood through positive reinforcement that’s often lacking if you’re depressed. The activities selected should be personal to you.

Behavioral action helps teach you that behaviors affect mood. It’s often used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy; however, it can be used on its own.

Examples of pleasurable activities include hobbies or passions (dancing, arts and crafts, sports, travel, watching enjoyable TV shows/comedy), social activities (parties, outings, pets), and sensory experiences (taking a bath).

The lowdown

SAD consists of depressive symptoms that can often be incapacitating for affected individuals. However, it is a treatable disorder with a wide variety of strategies that have been proven to ease symptoms and help people get back on track with their lives.

You can incorporate these self-care methods into daily routines to help improve your mood during seasons when you typically feel more depressed.

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