Overcoming seasonal affective disorder: How to enhance your mental well-being during winter

Overcoming seasonal affective disorder: How to enhance your mental well-being during winter

Dark mornings making it difficult to get out of bed? Exhausted by the time you finish your lunch? Going to sleep earlier but still feeling like you have no energy?

As the winter season approaches, many people begin to experience a shift in their mental health. For some, this can be more than just feeling a bit blue — it can mean struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a serious condition that affects about 5 percent of the U.S. population every year, and every 4 out of 5 people with SAD are women.

But knowing what SAD is and how to treat it can help enhance your mental and physical well-being during the cold, winter months.

What causes SAD and what are the symptoms?

SAD is a type of depression triggered by the loss of ultraviolet light and vitamin D that accompanies shorter days and less natural light in the winter. Even for those who get outside regularly in the winter, the decreased intensity of the sun’s rays can lead to SAD. Often, the most difficult months are January and February. SAD can affect people of any age, but usually begins between the ages of 18–30.

The symptoms of SAD vary from person to person and can be physical, mental or emotional. Symptoms can include feelings of sadness or hopelessness, stress, anxiety, fatigue, changes in appetite that often lead to weight gain or loss, as well as changes in sleep patterns and energy levels. These symptoms can lead to decreased productivity, loss of interest in activities that normally bring joy and difficulty thinking or concentrating.

Although symptoms can improve on their own with time and the changing of the seasons, treating SAD and finding the right support can help you get through the cold, dark winter days.

How is SAD treated?

“The good news is we have effective ways to treat the symptoms of SAD,” said Dr. Kari M. Wolf, CEO of the BHWC and Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at SIU School of Medicine:

  • Light therapy: A light therapy box or lamp mimics natural sunlight. Sitting in front of this type of artificial light may cause a chemical change in the brain that helps to boost your mood and reset your internal clock. This is the first-line (best) treatment option because it works as well as medications and therapy but tends to show a faster improvement in symptoms. It also addresses the fundamental cause of SAD—decreased ultraviolet light and Vitamin D.
  • Prescription medications: If needed, taking antidepressants can help provide an extra boost to your brain chemicals that are low in depression to stabilize your mood and treat all the symptoms of SAD. Work with your doctor to find the right medication for you.
  • Talk therapy: Talking to a counselor or therapist can be a great way to support your mental health and treat depression. By finding someone to talk to, you can ease the stress and anxiety you are feeling during this time of year.
  • Practice self-care: Developing good habits and self-care practices can help you decrease symptoms of SAD. Exercising regularly, minimizing and managing stress, eating nutritious meals, taking part in hobbies that bring you joy and practicing gratitude and mindfulness activities, like yoga or meditation, are great ways to boost your mood throughout the year.

Winter can be a difficult season to navigate; however, being aware of the symptoms related to Seasonal Affective Disorder and taking extra care of yourself physically and mentally can help you find the right treatment to better your well-being during the winter reason. Always make sure to talk to your doctor about your symptoms to see what other recommendations they may have to benefit your mental health.

BHWC Mission

To increase access to effective behavioral health services through coordinated initiatives to recruit, educate, and retain professionals in behavioral health.