Beating The Winter Blues: 5 Tips to Tackle Seasonal Affective Disorder

by Amy Phariss

Several years ago, the Army moved our family from North Carolina to Pennsylvania for one lone year, so my husband could attend school. I was excited to live in a new, charming town, have my husband around more often with a more flexible schedule and take the kids hiking along the Appalachian Trail. We moved in July, during the hot, muggy summer of the east coast, and by September, I was settled into the rhythm of a new place. In November, I began noticing some gray skies, a bit of rain, and a darkening that seemed to creep in through the cracks of the 1920s home we rented in downtown Carlisle and settle in. 

By December, I knew something was wrong. 

The skies weren’t clearing. There was nothing blue in my world…except maybe my mood? 

As the winter wore on, I began noticing I felt off. I was restless, unable to make decisions, and cranky. I felt a low-level depression I couldn’t shake off. I had no ‘reason’ for feeling this way. My family was healthy and happy. My husband’s schooling gave us more time together. I’d made a handful of lovely friends in our new neighborhood. 

Still, I couldn’t escape a feeling that left me fatigued, angry and, well, depressed. Suddenly, the days seemed really long, and the idea of getting outside, talking with friends or attending social functions became overwhelming.

Still, as the snow continued falling, I shrank further into myself until one day I came across an article on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). As I read, I saw myself in the description, and by the end of the article, I knew I was suffering not from a lack of gratitude or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome but from SAD.  

With this knowledge, and feeling hopeful that if I could identify what was wrong, I could fix it, I got to work helping myself tackle my winter blues. Here is what I learned, what worked for me, and options to address SAD and enjoy, rather than endure, the winter season.  

The National Institute of Mental Health defines Seasonal Affective Disorder as “a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away in the spring and summer.” According to researchers Kathryn A. Roecklein and Kelly J. Rohan, in their 2005 publication “Seasonal Affective Disorder: Overview and Update,” “An estimated 10 to 20 percent of recurrent depression cases follow a seasonal pattern.” While depressive symptoms associated with SAD can occur in the summer months, the majority of cases are reported in the winter. Symptoms of major depression often mirror those of SAD in the winter months and can co-occur with SAD-specific symptoms. 

The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder in winter include:

  • Low energy
  • Hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness/difficulty staying awake, excessive sleeping) 
  • Overeating/Weight Gain
  • Craving foods high in carbohydrates
  • Loss of interest in socializing (i.e. hibernating)

Less common symptoms include:

  • Poor appetite/weight loss
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of restlessness
  • Periods/episodes of violent behavior

If you find yourself or someone you love experiencing some or all of these symptoms, it may be time to take proactive steps to beat the winter blues and stop SAD in its tracks. 

Here are Five Ways to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder:

1 Check Your Vitamins

The National Institute of Mental Health notes that people who experience SAD may produce lower levels of vitamin D, which has been associated with low levels of depression. With less sunshine in winter months, vitamin D levels can drop in some people. Have your levels tested with your general practitioner and supplement if necessary. For many people, a simple daily vitamin can make a measurable difference in symptoms associated with SAD and improve quality of life substantially during these darker months.

2 Go Toward the Light

Blue light boxes have become a go-to treatment for SAD over the past decade. Supported by research and recommended by doctors, blue light boxes mimic outdoor light, which researchers believe helps increase chemicals in the brain to raise moods and lessen depressive symptoms. Experts recommend using light boxes within an hour of waking for approximately 20 to 30 minutes. Sit anywhere from 16 to 24 inches from the box, and keep your eyes open without looking directly into the light.  Light boxes come in various shapes and sizes, so be sure to find one that fits your space and needs. Also, look for boxes made specifically for SAD, and be sure to check levels and intensity of light before choosing the right box for you.  Also, be sure to get outside, even on cloudy or dreary days. Exposure to UV light, which happens even under cloud cover, helps boost serotonin and improve mood. While it can be tempting to curl up inside with a movie or crossword puzzle, a walk around the block can help balance the brain chemicals and lift our moods.  I purchased a blue light online, set it up at the kitchen table and gave myself a little light therapy each morning while sipping coffee and basking in blue. It did make a noticeable difference, as the days passed, and I keep it tucked away in my closet here in North Carolina for longer periods of rainy days.  

3 Get Moving

Exercise is good for just about anything, from the condition of our hearts to the functioning of our brains to the stability of our moods. Exercise gets our hearts racing, our blood pumping and our feel-good endorphins flowing. Increased endorphins have a positive impact on mood, helping us feel more energized, calmer and happier. While enduring the dreary Pennsylvania winter, I took up tennis lessons (thankfully provided indoors) to get my body moving and to engage my brain in learning a sport. The difference it made in my daily life was noticeable, and I felt stronger, healthier and happier after each lesson and as the weeks passed by. I continued playing through the remainder of our time up north, grateful to have a physical outlet to get me out of the house, rain or shine. Moving my body and using my brain simultaneously was a huge part of addressing my SAD and giving me some much-needed zest through that long winter. 

4 Try Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been adapted and used to effectively treat SAD. Known as CBT- SAD, this therapeutic treatment helps identify and change behaviors and thoughts associated with depression including negative thoughts. Behavioral activation, another CBT technique, helps those suffering with SAD identify and pursue enjoyable activities to combat depressive symptoms both indoors and outside. Talk with your doctor for a referral to a therapist or counselor who may be able to provide therapeutic interventions to alleviate SAD’s symptoms. During my own bleak winter and struggle with SAD, I saw a therapist a few times to talk through my symptoms, discuss a plan for getting out of the house and identify how I could help myself feel better. The therapy was helpful for me, and I stuck with the plan, helped myself up and out of the house and felt relief in having addressed my feelings with a professional. 

5 Consider Medication

Though it is possible to combat SAD through many of the tips above, medication is another avenue to consider when depressive symptoms become overwhelming or do not get better with other treatments. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are used to treat SAD and can significantly improve symptoms. The first medication approved by the FDA to treat SAD is Wellbutrin XL (bupropion HCL extended-release tablets), but other medications are also prescribed. My doctor in Pennsylvania was prepared to put me on medication if my symptoms weren’t eased by other activities, and I was grateful to have that option available to me when the snow was falling, the streets were coated in ice and I sat by the front window feeling restless and low. Though I didn’t end up needing the medication, it’s yet another tool in the proverbial toolbox I am aware exists and will explore should the need ever arise again. Many doctors prescribe medication before symptoms begin, in anticipation of SAD in patients who have experienced seasonal depression in the past. Make an appointment with your doctor to discuss SAD symptoms and if medication may be an option to help. 

By educating myself about SAD, using the tips above and being gentle with myself through the process, I was able to lift myself out of a winter depression and enjoy the rest of our time in Pennsylvania. 

I volunteered at my kids’ school, attended book club meetings, met friends for coffee and threw parties of my own. As spring came, and the skies began shifting to blue, the flowers literally bloomed and the weather brightened, I knew I’d gotten through the worst of it and would be okay. Now that we’re back in North Carolina, I find myself seeing the same symptoms arise when we get a few back-to-back days of rain, when the sky is dark before dinner is served and when the skies are covered in clouds. When I begin to feel fatigued, sad or disoriented, I go back to what helped me before, grabbing my blue light from the closet, getting outside for a brisk walk with our dog and reminding myself that these feelings won’t last forever. Sometimes, just knowing what’s wrong and taking steps to make it better, however small and however slow they may be, makes all the difference. 

If you find yourself or a loved one struggling with the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, try these tips to help ease the effects of the darkening skies, colder weather and lack of sunshine that leaves some of us wanting to get back in bed, pull the covers closer to the chin and hibernate through the winter months.