Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): How to Beat the “Winter Blues"

Seasonal Affective Disorder: How to beat the winter bluesFall is a beautiful time of year. You can enjoy comfortable (and flattering!) leggings, fall leaves and pumpkin-flavored everything. However, for many Americans, the cool weather and shorter days means something different. They find themselves feeling down, lethargic, or sleeping way too much. They feel apathetic about work or hopeless about life.

Seasonal affective disorder (or SAD) is a very real and tangible thing. The Mayo Clinic defines seasonal affective disorder as “a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.”

Seasonal affective disorder impacts millions of Americans. An estimated 4-6% of Americans suffer from significant SAD, and another 10-20% suffer from a mild case. Women and people living in northern states and countries are at a higher risk. For example, 14% of Norwegians in Oslo report SAD vs. 4.7% of New Yorkers and those living in Washington state are 7 times more likely to suffer from SAD than those in Florida.

Over the past decade, we’ve learned more about SAD and can identify ways to decrease the impact it has. After ten years of working with individuals struggling with SAD, here are the techniques that I have seen to be most effective.

1. Be aware. Many Americans who struggle with SAD don’t initially recognize it. They assume that everybody struggles in the winter and dismiss their worsening symptoms. A first step is recognizing the symptoms of SAD, so you can seek help before things get bad. 

If you or your loved ones are experiencing some of these symptoms:

·         A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods
·         Weight gain
·         A heavy feeling in the arms or legs
·         A drop in energy level
·         Fatigue
·         A tendency to oversleep (Americans with SAD sleep an average of 2.5 hours more in winter than in the summer vs. Americans without SAD who only sleep 0.7 hours more)
·         Difficulty concentrating
·         Irritability
·         Increased sensitivity to social rejection
·         Avoidance of social situations—not wanting to go out

You may be suffering from SAD and should consult a doctor or counselor. Unmanaged SAD, just like regular depression, can worsen if ignored.

There is also evidence that those with bipolar or major depressive disorder’s depression symptoms can increase in the winter, so being aware of changes in your mental health and having a plan to address SAD with your counselor and doctor is crucial.

2. Buy a lightbox. Light therapy is very beneficial for people with SAD. Studies find that 60-80% of individuals with SAD report an improvement in their symptoms after using light therapy. Luckily, the light boxes are very affordable. You can find them online at sites like Amazon or Walmart. You may only need between 30-90 minutes a day to see an improvement. I use mine when I am writing or reading, and it makes a significant difference (interestingly, my dogs and cat also love it).

3. Take your vitamins. While medication can be very beneficial (or necessary depending on the severity of your symptoms), sometimes just an uptick in your vitamins can help. Several studies have linked depression with low levels of B12, folate and/or Vitamin D, and doctors will recommend increasing your vitamins as a way to help with depression symptoms*. If an increase in vitamins doesn't help, antidepressants can be a great short- or long-term option and most doctors are able to prescribe a low-dose to help you get through the winter. 

*(Be aware though that high levels of these vitamins can interact with other meds so make sure you consult your doctor first).

4. Don’t skip the gym. When it gets cold and snowy, many people stop working out. It’s too cold to run outside or snuggling in bed seems more appealing than the gym, but you need to continue exercising. It forces you get out of bed, get dressed and be around people, and exercise is a great way to help manage symptoms of depression (hooray for endorphins!).

5. Know that it may only be temporary. My first year at college, I suffered from significant seasonal affective disorder. I had moved from sunny California to northern Idaho and couldn’t handle the snow and very short days. I wanted to drop out and move back to California, but a good friend kept encouraging me. He said, “Just make it to the spring semester. The days will get longer, the weather will get warmer and you’ll feel better. Just get through the next two months.” He was right, and I have stayed in Idaho ever since (now my SAD is milder and more manageable).

It is easy when the days are long to feel like you’ll always be miserable, but people with seasonal affective disorder often report an improvement around the same time each year. As you are seeking treatment, remember that you can get through this difficult time and it is only for a few months.

6. Don't be afraid to seek help. It's okay to attend just a few counseling sessions or take antidepressants for a few months, then taper off (under your doctor's supervision) as the days lengthen and the snow melts. There is nothing wrong with short-term treatment; in fact, your doctor and/or counselor would rather offer short-term help than have someone slide into a crippling state of depression they can’t get out of.

Hopefully, these are helpful. If in doubt, talk to your doctor. They are very familiar with seasonal affective disorder and can give you tools to improve your mental health. Seasonal affective disorder does not have to rob you of the joy of winter.

What tools have you found to help you manage your winter blues?


  1. What a great post! In my coaching and mentoring, I have met quite a few people who struggle with SAD--thank you for sharing such tangible actions to combat it.

  2. Thank you for this post. I remember hearing that a lot of people suffered from SAD in Seattle (and probably other places like Seattle where there's so little sun).