Although holiday light displays and festivities are meant to spread cheer, for millions of Americans, the winter season can be a SAD time — (no) thanks to Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of temporary depression linked to specific seasons.
Although scientists are still learning about what, exactly, causes SAD, research has long suggested that sunlight affects our ability to produce serotonin — this neurotransmitter (brain chemical) is associated with many functions, including mood. In fact, one 2023 study found a "positive association between sunlight exposure and mental health" by researching operating room nurses, who work long hours in rooms without exposure to sunlight.
So it’s no surprise that, for most, SAD is more likely to occur when the days shorten and sunlight is scarce — although technically, both winter-pattern and summer-pattern SADs exist.
Who gets SAD — and how to combat it
SAD is far more common, according to the NIH, in women than in men — and in those who already experience depressive episodes due to clinical depression or bipolar disorder.
In order for your seasonal doldrums to officially be diagnosed as SAD, they’ll need to occur during the same season for two consecutive years (and more frequently than any depressive episodes experienced during other seasons).
Still, whether you’ve been diagnosed or not, if you’re experiencing a case of the winter blues, there’s hope. Here are some of the best ways to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder, according to experts — and they can help improve anyone’s mental health during the darkest months of the year.
1. Try a happy lamp
Despite the slang-y name, light therapy lamps, which can simulate the sun’s bright rays, are one of the first lines of defense for SAD. The therapy is as simple as sitting in front of the lamp for 20 or 30 minutes a day — which might also be a good time to practice mindfulness meditation, another helpful option.
According to the Mayo Clinic, when choosing a light therapy lamp or box, you should look for one that provides at least 10,000 lux of light — and as little UV exposure as possible. General guidelines recommend using the light first thing after waking up and keeping it about 16 to 24 inches from your face while keeping your eyes open, but not looking into the light directly.
Still, therapy lights aren’t regulated by the FDA, so it’s wise to ask your doctor for guidance in choosing and using one.
2. Talk it out in therapy
Psychotherapy ("talk therapy") is a tried and true treatment for many different kinds of depression, including SAD — and, again, one that can be helpful for just about anyone.
According to a previous ValuePenguin survey, more than half of Americans report feeling sad and lonely during the holiday season, naming SAD as a primary cause alongside grief and distance from loved ones. And although it’s not an instant cure, processing feelings in therapy has the potential to help lift spirits around the holidays and beyond — and therapists can provide effective, sustainable tools to develop healthier mental habits.
Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act mandates that all federal and state marketplace plans carry mental and behavioral health coverage — though when it comes to costs, your mileage may vary depending on your specific policy and whether or not you have a mental health diagnosis. If therapy becomes a regular part of your life, it may make sense to shop for a therapy-friendly insurance policy that offers more robust mental health coverage.
3. Get your daily dose of vitamin D
While sunlight aids in the production of serotonin, vitamin D — which we can also synthesize for ourselves with exposure to sunlight — regulates it. In other words, we need both for our brains to function properly, and both may be in short supply during winter’s limited daylight hours.
Fortunately, upping your dose of this nutrient is as easy as taking a small pill each day: Over-the-counter vitamin D supplements often carry as many as 5000 IU each, several times the amount recommended for most children and adults (600 IU).
However, since vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and can interact with some other medications and supplements, again, it’s worth consulting your doctor before taking on a regular supplementation regimen.
4. Move your body
While going for a run may be less appealing when it’s raining, snowing or dark outside, exercise is still one of the best ways to combat chronic stress and sadness. Along with helping your brain produce feel-good endorphins, exercise can also increase your confidence and provide you with new ways to socialize — all of which can help both anxiety and depression, according to Mayo Clinic.
Although it may be hard to find the motivation, outdoor activities are still accessible with the right gear, and promise the soothing effect of natural beauty along with the benefits of exercise. And for those who live in urban areas (or don’t frequent outdoor sports stores), the gym can always suffice.
5. Consider antidepressants
Sometimes, our brains just need a little bit more concentrated chemical help — and in some cases, your doctor or psychiatrist might prescribe antidepressants to aid in the battle against SAD. Since SAD likely has to do with an imbalance or lack of serotonin, a class of medicines called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) might be appropriate.
However, antidepressants can take up to eight weeks to start working, and may come with side effects. As always, your doctor will be the best person to talk to when figuring out the best possible course of treatment to keep your winter outlook sunny and bright.