If you find yourself feeling more down in the winter months than in summer, you may have seasonal affective disorder or SAD. It’s a season-based depression that often strikes when sunlight is scarce. (There is a less-common version of SAD that some people get in summer, too.) And you’re not the only one feeling the winter blues. Mild cases of SAD affect between 10 and 20 percent of the population, while 4 to 6 percent experience full-blown symptoms. It affects four times more women than men, and it typically kicks in no sooner than about age 20.
People who live farther north tend to experience SAD more readily. So, if you live in, say, Boston, you’re more likely to go through winter depression than if you’re from Houston. Still, people everywhere find themselves suffering. Some common symptoms include appetite changes, fatigue, waning energy, weight gain, irritability, being more sensitive to rejection in social situations and avoiding social encounters. You may also have trouble with oversleeping and concentration. These symptoms intensify as the days get shorter and tend to go away by the time summer rolls around again.
If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor for guidance. She may prescribe medication or light therapy, which is a way to artificially mimic the sun indoors using special visors or light boxes. In the meantime, here are some ways to mitigate the effects of seasonal depression on your daily life.
Open Up Your Heart, um, Blinds and Let the Sun Shine In
Natural sunlight is harder to come by in the cooler months when you sometimes leave for work and come back home in darkness. Make the most of the daylight hours by opening your blinds and sitting close to sunny windows. Add skylights or trim back overgrown bushes and evergreens that block your access to natural light, because every extra ray counts.
If your schedule or home or office configuration won’t allow for access to natural light, try waking to a dawn-simulating alarm clock. It mimics sunrise with a full-spectrum light that “rises” and wakes you gradually instead of the jarring blare of a traditional alarm.
Aromatherapy can help you manage your mood, appetite and other factors of seasonal affective disorder. According to a study in The Journal for Natural Medicines, poplar essential oil is especially effective for people who cope with depression. For trouble relaxing or sleeping, try lavender. Always tell your doctor when you use essential oils to avoid any conflicts with other treatments.
Break a Sweat
From helping you sleep better at night to improving your self-esteem, exercise has plenty of benefits year round. A consistent exercise routine helps you manage a host of depression-related concerns, too. It helps counteract the weight gain that often comes with winter depression, and it regulates hormones.
If you can exercise outside, that’s ideal. Outdoor light, particularly, within the first 2 hours after you wake up, helps alleviate some SAD impacts. Even if you just take a long walk outside, natural light can make a difference in the severity of your symptoms. Of course, if you live in a cold climate, outdoor workouts may just not be in the cards. In that case, head to the treadmill or other machine that’s right next to the window at the gym and soak up the sun as you enjoy moving your body.
Go where the sun is for a break from seasonal depression symptoms. Not only does the actual sun help boost your spirits, but the anticipation of travel and the excitement of your trip both make lasting changes to your mood. If you can’t afford a long winter vacation, don’t fret. Even a couple of days in a warmer, sunnier location can ease depressive feelings for up to a few weeks after your return.
Seasonal affective disorder can be challenging, but you can make small adjustments that help. Get into the sun as much as you can, enjoy exercise and try creative ways to enhance your mood. And hang in there — summer’s just around the corner.