As winter ramps up, it’s all too easy to let a whole day pass by without getting outside or doing much of anything, really. The winter blahs can get to anyone.
There’s no denying the very real need many of us feel to cozy up on the couch with some hot cocoa and a good movie during the colder months. However, there is a point at which the season’s impact on our mood can become serious.
If you find yourself skipping plans with friends and loved ones more and more to stay in and curl up under a blanket, losing motivation to complete work or other daily tasks, and sleeping a ton, you might be dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) rather than a standard case of the winter blues.
“Emotionally and physically, seasonal affective disorder can look and feel a lot like depression, both to the person experiencing it and to an outsider looking in,” explains Laura Geftman, L.C.S.W., a mental health consultant for Lina. Of course, keep in mind that not everyone shows outward signs of depression; some people might also hide how they’re feeling around other people. “This is exactly why it is so important to be mindful of the emotional and physical symptoms of SAD,” Geftman adds.
Common Signs Of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Read on to better understand the biggest signs you might be facing SAD—and learn some tools that can help you manage your symptoms throughout this time of year.
1. Your sadness started around daylight saving time
Feeling blah or a bit melancholy around the holidays or shortly after is definitely common—but SAD is a different story. In this case, you may truly struggle to function at work, school, or in checking off your daily to-do list. You may also experience amplified feelings of sadness. “A person living with seasonal depression experiences symptoms that are parallel to major depression, meaning they are experienced more intensely than feelings of sadness associated with the winter blues,” says Geftman.
SAD is different from many other forms of depression and depressive symptoms in that it usually comes and goes, often starting around Daylight Saving Time (when the weather changes and days get shorter) and dissipating come springtime. “For the most part, those living with SAD are free of depressive symptoms as the seasons change, the weather gets warmer, and they start to feel more comfortable in their environment again,” Geftman says. Noticing these fluctuations in yourself is one of the most telltale signs of seasonal affective disorder.
2. You feel especially isolated from other people
It’s understandable that on some winter evenings, a night in with Netflix is more appealing than braving the cold and going out. However, those experiencing your typical winter blues “still likely feel comfortable maintaining their friendships and relationships in other ways,” says Geftman.
Because of the depressive symptoms associated with SAD, though, people might feel alone and begin to isolate from friends and family. “A person experiencing seasonal affective disorder might not be able to maintain their social relationships at all, and may be prone to behaviors such as self-isolation,” says Geftman. Unfortunately, this isolation creates a cycle that often only exacerbates feelings of depression and hopelessness.
3. You experience Fatigue Or a General lack of energy
Even people without SAD might feel a bit like hibernating in the winter (who actually wants to get out from under their covers on a frigid morning?). That said, profound fatigue and lack of energy or focus needed to do things that you enjoy or need to do are hallmark signs of SAD. “A person experiencing the winter blues may also be more prone to sleeping in more or slacking off throughout colder and darker days, but these symptoms do not typically interfere with their daily life and overall contentment,” Geftman says. In cases of SAD, though, these feelings impact your ability to function healthily or get through your day.
SAD can also disturb your sleeping patterns by impacting your circadian rhythm, which also causes symptoms of low energy and lethargy, says psychotherapist Jesse Hanson, Ph.D., advisor at Rehab.com. If you have seasonal affective disorder, you might feel like sleeping all the time but never feel quite rested.
4. You have Carb cravings
Those with SAD often experience especially intense cravings and a bigger appetite than usual, especially for foods like carbohydrates, Hanson says. Unfortunately, falling into a pattern of eating this way can only make lethargy worse.
Read More: 9 Quick Ways To Cope With Cravings
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, these carb cravings make sense scientifically. When you eat carbohydrates, insulin spikes, which “turns on” a pathway that leads to the production of serotonin (the feel-good hormone) in the brain.
5. You have a stronger urge to drink and rely on Mood-Altering substances
When feeling sad or isolated, many people might try to find ways to numb those thoughts or take the edge off. “Alcohol and opiates are often correlated with depression, in general—including SAD—because they are depressants,” says Hanson. “And so they help the person solidify the feeling of being depressed.” In fact, American Addiction Centers reports that some people who struggle with alcohol use do so seasonally, and that they may be trying to cope with SAD symptoms. Unfortunately, alcohol and drug use typically only worsen symptoms.
This can be especially prevalent in men, who may struggle to speak up about feelings of depression and be more likely to lean on other attempts at coping, including substance use.
This isn’t to say that everyone with SAD misuses substances or that everyone with the standard “winter blues” does not. Substance use just commonly occurs in correlation with depressive symptoms, so it’s something to be mindful of.
How To Cope With SAD
If you think you’re dealing with SAD this winter, you’re not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association, five percent of American adults experience SAD each year, for more than a third of the year. Luckily, there are some strategies you can use to get help and practice self-soothing effectively.
1. Try light therapy
The most popular tool used for coping with SAD is a “happy lamp” (a.k.a. a lightbox), which might be a good place to start if you’re feeling down. “Seasonal depression lamps are available and are commonly used at home to mimic sun exposure and provide relief,” Geftman says. That bright light not only offers a mood boost, but can help support your circadian rhythm and sleep patterns.
2. Talk with a therapist
Seeking mental health support to do some deeper work and get to the root causes of your seasonal sadness is always a good idea, recommends Hanson. A qualified counselor can not only help you find clarity around your situation but also offer action steps for caring for yourself, too.
3. Move more
“Exercise can play a huge part in regulating mood, so sometimes a lifestyle change may be helpful in combating seasonal depression,” Geftman says. That doesn’t mean you have to attempt to tackle hardcore weightlifting sessions or HIIT workouts, though. Even going for a daily walk around your home, doing a gentle yoga flow, or even moving around to some music that lifts your mood are healing sources of movement.
4. Eat foods that nourish you
As with movement, nutrition can also have a significant impact on your sense of wellbeing throughout the difficult winter months. Hanson recommends incorporating as many fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as possible—and doing your best to eat foods high in sugar in moderation.
5. Drink in moderation
“Another great coping mechanism would be to curb or cut back on your alcohol consumption, which will help reduce SAD symptoms,” says Hanson. In many cases, the support of a therapist or counselor is incredibly helpful in making a change like this sustainable, since it often requires some deeper inner work, he suggests.
6. Find your go-to self-soothing practices
People turn to everything from journaling and meditation to deep breathing and essential oils to help them cope with SAD and find sources of comfort in their daily routine. “[These] tools can be added to your toolkit to help manage symptoms—just keep in mind that everyone is different and while some tools may be helpful for one person, they are not always necessarily helpful for the next,” Geftman points out. Commit to trying out a handful of different practices throughout the next week or so to discover which resonate with you. (These nine acts of self-care take five minutes or less!)
7. Push Yourself to Socialize
Above all else, try to reconnect with activities that bring you joy throughout this season—especially if they involve community with family, friends, and loved ones. “There is clinical research that shows that when [people experience] the feeling of connection, the symptoms of depression—including SAD—begin to alleviate, and sometimes even subside altogether,” Hanson says. Whether it’s getting back to your yoga studio for a weekly class, painting, or regular family dinners, commit to filling more of your time with experiences that truly fill you up.
8. Consider medication
When simpler tactics like going for walks during daylight hours or using a lightbox don’t provide much relief, or you’re noticing severe symptoms, it may be helpful to consult a psychiatrist about antidepressant medications, says Geftman.