Seasonal affective disorder: What it is and 6 ways to cope, from exercise to CBT

Sad young woman with seasonal affective disorder or depression sitting alone in her bed. Unhappy lady overwhelmed with negative thoughts, suffering from mental illness
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that mostly affects people during the winter. (Photo via Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a medical condition that affects individuals during certain times of the year — particularly when the weather gets colder and the days get shorter.

SAD is a type of depression that can impact your quality of life and can hinder your ability to build a sustainable routine throughout the year.

That being said, there are many ways to cope with SAD. Although it's not curable, individuals can find ways to manage living with the disorder.

What is seasonal affective disorder and what are the symptoms?

SAD is a form of depression that affects people on a seasonal basis. This is particularly true when the weather turns colder and the days get shorter.

Although many individuals experience "the winter blues," a smaller percentage of people are diagnosed with SAD.

Middle aged woman sleeping on a bed at home in the dark.
Excessive sleeping and lack of energy are symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (Photo via Getty Images)

During the winter, people with the blues may want to be at home more often. They may also want to participate in activities they would usually do in the summer.

However, individuals with SAD may experience the following symptoms:

  • Feeling sad and depressed

  • Sleeping excessively

  • Loss of energy and increased feelings of fatigue

  • Appetite changes

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Feeling indifferent towards personal interests and hobbies

  • Suicidal ideation

Who does seasonal affective disorder affect?

Like clinical depression, factors including your family history, biological characteristics and your psychological background can impact whether or not you are prone to developing SAD.

However, it is more common for young women to develop the condition.

When is seasonal affective disorder most prevalent?

SAD is most prevalent during the fall and winter when it's colder, the days are shorter, and there is less daylight.

Experts believe these factors may stimulate a chemical change in your brain that causes individuals to experience temporary depressive symptoms.

snow on the ground in a park at night with footprints.
Seasonal affective disorder is most prevalent during the fall and winter when it's colder, the days are shorter, and there is less daylight. (Photo via Getty Images)

How to alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

Living with seasonal affective disorder isn't easy, but there are ways to cope with the condition. There are also ways prevent SAD from impacting your quality of life during the colder months.

Consider the following methods to help alleviate SAD symptoms.

1. Use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

As SAD is a form of depression, it will need to be diagnosed by a licensed medical professional.

Like clinical depression, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help individuals experiencing SAD develop skills to cope with the disorder.

In fact, CBT has been proven to have the most enduring effects for SAD.

2. Undergo light therapy

A study published by the National Library of Medicine determined that light therapy effectively reduced symptoms of SAD.

Light therapy is a method of coping with SAD that involves sitting in front of a light box for half an hour a day in order to activate your hypothalamus and restore your circadian rhythm.

The light must be made to treat SAD and have a brightness of at least 10,000 lux to be effective.

Light therapy is a common treatment for a variety of conditions, from auto-immune disorders like psoriasis and eczema, to wound healing, to depression and seasonal affective disorder, to circadian rhythm sleep disorders
Light therapy has been proven to effectively reduced symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (Photo via Getty Images)

3. Go outside as much as possible

Although it's significantly less appealing during the winter, experts suggest going outside during the day to combat symptoms of SAD.

This allows your body to soak up as much daylight as possible while also moving your body. If you're inside, you can also sit near a window to get some benefits of sunlight absorption.

4. Exercise

Exercise is an effective way of combating the symptoms of SAD. This is because it helps your body release endorphins, regulate sleep, increase metabolism and reduce anxiety.

Try aerobic exercises such as walking, running and dancing. Gentle activities like yoga, swimming and stretching are also beneficial.

5. Consider antidepressants

Not everyone requires antidepressants to treat SAD, but many people benefit from this method.

Because SAD is a form of depression, commonly prescribed antidepressants can work to combat your symptoms.

Consult with your health provider or a doctor if you're interested in pursuing antidepressants as a treatment option.

person working out in green tights with a kettlebell in a gym.
Exercise is an effective way of combating the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (Photo via Getty Images)

6. Head south

Although moving is not an option for everyone, individuals with SAD may benefit from living somewhere warmer and with more sunlight during the winter.

The bottom line

Nearly three per cent of Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with SAD every year, which makes up roughly 10 per cent of all diagnosed cases of depression.

Canadians are particularly at risk because the country's distance from the equator results in shorter, colder winter days.

If you have SAD, you may want to consider some of the above methods to cope with the condition. Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider to determine what approach works best for you.

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