Five Ways You Can Fight SAD

When daylight saving time ends on November 6, some people will celebrate. After all, what’s better than being able to sleep in for an extra hour on Sunday? Or, being able to get your kids to bed just a little earlier since it turns dark by 5 PM now? But for others, daylight saving time marks the beginning of a long, cold couple of months made even gloomier by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that affects around five percent of the country’s total population each year. SAD can affect anyone, but those particularly at risk include younger people, and those who live farther away from the equator—because the amount of winter daylight becomes shorter the farther you are from the equator, and darkness can make SAD symptoms more severe. The exact cause of SAD is currently unknown, but some possibilities include problems in the sleep cycle, chemical changes in the brain, and factors inherited from relatives. The good news? There are ways to manage SAD. If you or someone you know deals with SAD during the winter months, read on:

  1. See a doctor. If you’re starting to feel down as the weather changes, don’t be afraid to confide in your doctor. They will be able to assess what is going on—whether it is SAD or something else that’s causing a change in your mood—and a doctor can make the right recommendations to get you feeling better.
  2. Try light therapy. Light therapy, or phototherapy, is one of the most commonly prescribed treatments for SAD. Many common symptoms brought on by SAD—such as overeating, oversleeping, and craving carbs such as bread and pasta—stem from light deficiency. In the winter, it’s hard to be in the sun as much as other months, so many people use special “SAD lamps” indoors in order to get the light they need. 
  3. Practice mindfulness. Symptoms of SAD can include symptoms present during a major depressive episode, such as persistent sad mood, less interest in fun activities, feelings of worthlessness, and poor concentration. By practicing mindfulness—or awareness and acceptance of being in the present moment—through techniques such as meditation and self-care, you can help to combat these symptoms. 
  4. Get plenty of exercise. Regular exercise is a good way to fight any depression—including SAD. Try to focus on getting 30 minutes of exercise daily. People with SAD should consider outdoor activities—such as a brisk walk or a bike ride—in order to get the most benefits from your exercise by adding in exposure to light.
  5. Be sure to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. A healthy diet is a great idea, whether you deal with SAD or not. However, studies have shown that people with diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins—such as lean fish—were at lower risk for depression than those with diets high in fat and carbohydrates.

Have you ever dealt with SAD? We want to hear from you in the comments below.

Dr. Merle McCann is the service chief of the Adult Crisis Stabilization Unit at Sheppard Pratt Health System, and specializes in mood disorders. He is also a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland Hospital, School of Medicine and president-elect of the Maryland Psychiatric Society.