Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that people experience with the changing of the seasons. Typically, symptoms emerge in late fall or early winter and recede during the spring and summer months.

It’s estimated that 10 million Americans suffer from SAD 1, although medical experts believe that number would be far greater if more people recognized their symptoms. If you’ve noticed a marked change in your mood or behavior when certain seasons transition, you may be wondering how to deal with SAD.

Spotting the Symptoms

The first step to solving a problem is identifying it. SAD is frequently mixed up with winter blues, a general malaise that many people feel when the days get shorter in winter. Whereas winter blues come and go, the symptoms of SAD are specific and alarming.

SAD sufferers report having difficulty concentrating, losing interest in activities they usually enjoy, and sleeping too much. Their lack of energy and increased cravings for carbohydrates results in weight gain and overeating. Many patients become so depressed they no longer want to live 2.

Antidepressants

If any of those symptoms sound familiar, you’re likely wondering what can be done to combat SAD. Getting assessed by a doctor is a great place to start. A certain pattern of depressive episodes over the past two years is usually enough for a mental health professional to diagnose the condition and prescribe medication 3.

Scientific research suggests that sunlight plays a significant part in boosting our serotonin, which works to stabilize our moods. And since the serotonin levels of people with SAD tend to be less active, antidepressants and SSRIs are recommended to restore the balance.

Light Therapy

Pharmaceuticals aren’t the only option. Exposure to artificial light is widely regarded as an effective treatment of SAD. Light therapy boxes emit a bright light in varying wavelengths that mimic natural sunshine. By sitting in front of these boxes for 20 to 30 minutes per morning, you can activate your brain’s serotonin and reduce the symptoms of SAD 4.

Light therapy boxes are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so it’s best to speak with your doctor about whether this option is appropriate. Regardless, there is still plenty of winter sunlight to soak up as long as you can prioritize taking a daily stroll.

Talk It Out

A particular branch of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been designed to help SAD sufferers. CBT-SAD teaches patients how to cope when their winter-pattern or summer-pattern SAD flares up. The process, called behavioral activation, promotes finding enjoyable activities to shake sufferers out of their lethargy.

Although light box therapy has proven to be just as effective as CBT in reducing SAD symptoms, a long-term study claims that CBT’s teachings have a more lasting impact 5.

Get Outside

There’s no better way to lift your mood than by getting some exercise. And while it may seem counterintuitive, the best place to get those endorphins is outside — in the very season that’s depressing you! Whether you choose to go for a jog or take a brisk walk around the neighborhood, moving your body in the sun and fresh air can drastically improve your mood.

Adapt Your Diet

Many people with SAD have vitamin D deficiencies, which is interesting since researchers suspect a link between vitamin D and the regulation of serotonin 6. People with low vitamin D also tend to display symptoms very much in line with SAD (depression and fatigue) so a daily supplement might help.

As it happens, many of the ideal foods you can eat to combat SAD also contain vitamin D, such as egg yolks, mushrooms, and fish 7. Preparing meals that are rich in vitamin D proteins will feed your brain while keeping you away from those sweet carbs people crave at their low points!

Plan Ahead

If there’s one good thing about SAD, it’s that sufferers can anticipate the ebb and flow of their depressive episodes. This means you can prepare for the dark days ahead by modifying your routine in a variety of ways.

Scheduling time with friends and family can be a preemptive measure against SAD’s social withdrawal. Likewise, setting a firm schedule for waking up and going to bed can help you avoid falling into a pattern of oversleeping.

In the weeks prior to the season change, be sure to research the best ways to defend your mental health. Whether you choose to seek a prescription for antidepressants or an alternative solution at home, there are more resources available than ever before.