As autumn begins to introduce a familiar chill in the air, the sun begins to sleep in later and set earlier. For some people, this change of season is a breath of fresh air, but for others, it brings despair over the impending winter.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a real and sometimes debilitating mental health condition that affects an estimated 10 million U.S. adults. Typically, it occurs in the fall and winter months and in geographic locations that experience reduced sunlight exposure throughout these months, explains naturopath Kiera Lane, N.M.D., MSAc, L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., director of Arizona Natural Medicine. SAD can cause sufferers to experience feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, as well as changes in appetite.
The farther you live from the equator, the more likely you are to experience SAD. “There is a higher rate of SAD among people who live in the New England area compared to Florida due to the fact that those living farther from the equator have fewer hours of sunlight in the winter months,” explains Lane.
As with most mental health and mood-related disorders, it’s not always possible to entirely prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). That being said, there are certain strategies and lifestyle changes that individuals can implement to help ease symptoms. Interestingly, many of these tactics are best implemented before the days become super-short and temperatures drop.
Here, credentialed therapists and holistic health experts share the advice they offer to those with SAD to help them balance their mood and support themselves ahead of those darker, colder days.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Kiera Lane, N.M.D., MSAc, L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., is a naturopath, acupuncturist, and the director of Arizona Natural Medicine. Johanna Kaplan, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and the director of the Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Emily Guarnotta, Psy.D., is a psychologist and the co-founder of Phoenix Health. Kiara Luna, L.M.H.C., is a licensed mental health counselor, the owner of Knew You Psychotherapy, and the author of Becoming a Knew You.
1. Spend time outdoors
The number one way to combat symptoms of SAD is to try to spend at least 45 minutes, or ideally up to two hours, outside in daytime hours, according to Johanna Kaplan, Ph.D., director of the Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Doing this ahead of the winter season can help ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” she explains. Research has found that individuals experiencing low levels of this all-important nutrient may be more prone to SAD.
You can also opt to use a lightbox, or a special lamp that mimics outdoor light, if needed. Kaplan recommends setting up your bedroom so that you wake up next to the lightbox and have it timed with your REM cycle. “Formal recommendations include using one that provides 10,000 lux of light at least once a day for 20 to 40 minutes, so a lot of people find that most helpful to use as a way to wake up,” she suggests.
It’s important to note that the use of a lightbox is contraindicated for certain people, including people diagnosed with an eye condition or those taking certain medications that make them especially sensitive to light.
2. Fill your calendar
Emily Guarnotta, Psy.D., psychologist and co-founder of Phoenix Health, recommends being proactive about making plans for the fall and winter months, as doing so can give you a sense of control over your situation. “If you know that the winter months cause you to feel lonely or isolated, you can plan for activities, like pumpkin picking, a weekend getaway somewhere with warm weather, or a fitness challenge, to help combat this,” she says. “These plans can give you a sense of purpose and something to look forward to.”
3. Follow a nutrient-rich diet
Eating healthy isn’t only beneficial for your physical health, but also your mental health as well. In fact, certain nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish like salmon and nuts like almonds, have been shown to have mood-stabilizing benefits. If you’re not a fan of fish or nuts, you can get omega-3 fatty acids via supplementation, which you can buy in liquid or capsule form. Lane recommends between 1,000 and 1,200 milligrams per day.
It’s no surprise that leafy greens also fall on the list of foods to eat when you’re suffering from SAD. Research, including one study published in the journal Nutrients, has shown that people who are deficient in the B vitamins found in these foods may be more prone to mood-related disorders.
Incorporating these nutrient-rich foods ahead of the fall and winter seasons can help set you up for an easier experience, explains Kaplan.
4. Incorporate mindfulness into your routine
Mindfulness has been linked to an overall reduction in sadness and enhancement of emotional regulation. Implementing it into your morning routines helps you begin your day with intention and feeling more in control, notes Kiara Luna, L.M.H.C., owner of Knew You Psychotherapy and author of Becoming a Knew You. “This technique helps you stay grounded, reduces stress, and helps with increasing self-awareness.” She recommends starting out small, with just a five- to 10-minute meditation once daily, ideally in the morning. Over time, you can lengthen your meditations, but even short sessions will go a long way.
Create a mindfulness routine ahead of the fall and winter seasons, when you’re more prone to SAD and may struggle to make a new habit stick, Luna suggests. This way, the routine will be second nature and easier to stay consistent with right on through springtime. (Use this guide to get started with a meditation routine.)
5. Try talk therapy
If you haven’t tried it before, talk therapy (which includes speaking one-on-one with a professional therapist) may help you prepare for the season to come by teaching you tips and tricks that can help you manage your symptoms when they do arise and prevent you from becoming overwhelmed by SAD throughout the darker months, according to Luna. “Having a professional support you through them and provide you with effective tools to navigate them can be such a relief,” she says. “With therapy, you can learn effective tools to manage and also gain understanding on how seasonal changes may be impacting you.”
6. Consider supplementation
Some studies have found that taking vitamin D may be helpful for those who feel low during the wintertime. “We’re only able to get small amounts of this fat-soluble nutrient from diet through foods like mushrooms, salmon, and swordfish,” notes Lane. “Light is our main source.” That’s why supplementing may be supportive for those who don’t spend their winters at Miami Beach.
Nearly 42 percent of Americans are low on this important vitamin, so if you’re wondering whether you could benefit from getting more into your system, the answer is quite possibly yes. If you decide to supplement, the recommended dose is 600 IU for adults under 70 and 800 IU for adults over 70.
Other supplements that may be supportive are l-tryptophan and 5-HTP, precursors to serotonin, as they can promote natural serotonin production, adds Lane. “These supplements should be avoided with those on antidepressants of any kind, including but not limited to SSRIs and SSNRIs,” she adds. So check in with your doctor before trying them to make sure they make sense for you.
Just as emphasizing certain mood-supporting foods even before the days get short can help you through the winter season, doing so with a few strategic supplements can also help, she says.