How to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Monday, November 7, 2022

Amazon sells a variety of light therapy lamps
By Nick Norman, MSW, LICSW

Every year since moving to Seattle for graduate school, I have had to deal with seasonal depression that comes with the dark winter months. 

While not avoidable, knowing what I was dealing with and how to approach my daily routine has made all the difference.

Winter depression, formally known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is characterized by depression symptoms that have a clear onset and decline with the change in seasons. 

This particular form of depression has a much higher diagnosis rate in northern states as opposed to southern states, where the winters are much sunnier. Common symptoms include:

  • Decline in motivation
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • A loss of pleasure in activities you normally enjoy
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Cognitive issues: difficulty concentrating, mental “numbness” or “brain fog”
  • Social withdrawal
  • Overeating (due to craving high-carb foods)
  • Oversleeping

When it comes to this particular type of depression, a multi-pronged approach is usually most effective. It can take time to find the right combination, but here are a few key factors that can make the winter months easier:

Eat a balanced diet

During the winter it is tempting to resort to carbohydrate-heavy foods or treats filled with sugar. However, these can make seasonal depression worse. Keeping a regulated diet with ample veggies, lean protein, and a moderate amount of whole carbohydrates is best. Limit things like sugar and alcohol, which can worsen the symptoms of SAD.

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There are also a few supplements that can be helpful
  • Vitamin D3 – Since SAD is connected to a lack of sunlight, supplementing with oral vitamin D3 is shown to help.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – While northern states and counties have higher rates of SAD, Iceland has an unusually low diagnosis rate. What’s more, they are statistically one of the happiest countries in the world. It is believed that their diet, which includes a high consumption of fish (omega-3 fatty acids), is a major contributor to their low rates of winter depression. Adding fish oil supplements to your diet can give you the benefits of these omega-3s.
Try a therapy lamp

Since SAD is associated with a reduction of sunlight, there are a few kinds of therapeutic lamps that can be used to compensate. These are typically full spectrum lamps, meaning they project the full visible light spectrum, rather than just a portion of it like most light bulbs.

  • Standard SAD lamps – these lamps are very bright (at least 10,000 lux) and are meant to be used indirectly, and only for a limited amount of time each day. Always follow the instructions on any therapeutic lamps.
  • Sunrise simulators – these lamps operate like an alarm clock and turn on gradually to simulate a sunrise. By tapping into our natural tendency to wake up to the sun, they make it easier to manage the dark winter mornings.

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and mat classes. There are local dance studios
Stay active and get outside

The increasing darkness can lead us to be less active and social, all of which can make seasonal depression worse. 

Make time to get out of the house and enjoy the natural light outdoors. Since declining motivation is a major symptom of seasonal depression, a reliable routine can also give you the structure you need to keep active and engaged.

  • Exercise – Our mental health is intricately connected to our bodies, and bodies need to move. Exercise is one of the fundamental habits that contribute to overall well being. During the winter, moving your body has a strong impact on reducing symptoms of seasonal depression.
  • Social activities – The winter can make people want to hibernate, and when seasonal depression is involved, self-isolation can be even easier. Be intentional about getting out and engaging with friends and family. Throughout your day, find moments to connect with another person, whether it’s a coworker or even the barista at the coffee shop.
Seek professional help

There are plenty of things you can do for yourself to manage symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but no one needs to be alone in that process. Mental health professionals can be a huge help in treating SAD.
  • Medication treatments – A psychiatric prescriber can do an evaluation for anxiety, depression, and more, and can determine whether a medication approach is merited. Some people find that seasonal use of antidepressants has a positive impact, especially when combined with therapy.
  • Therapy – Regular therapy with a qualified therapist can make a huge impact, both during the winter and long-term. Therapy helps us to reframe unhelpful thought patterns, identify and change self-sabotaging behavior, and work through underlying trauma. During the winter months, a good therapist is also a consistent and reliable support that helps us navigate the ups and downs.

Nick Norman, LICSW, is the Business Relationship Manager at Mindful Therapy Group, a diverse and collaborative network of licensed, independent mental health clinicians serving Washington and Oregon. There are local clinics in Mountlake Terrace, Northgate, Elliott Bay, and telehealth.


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