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What to do when winter makes you feel SAD

Many people say their depression aligns with the seasons—they start to feel down as the fall sets in, and cheer up in the spring. Depression that changes with the calendar is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Four out of five people who are affected by SAD are women, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

SAD is likely caused by changes in sunlight. There’s less of it in in the fall and the winter months, which may alter our circadian rhythm. Holiday season stresses—including family gatherings and financial constraints—may add to feelings of depression.

If you are battling the blues, here are three things you can do:

Focus #1: Let the light in

  • Turn on lamps. A brighter at home can help the brain stay upbeat.
  • Use a lightbox. Sit three feet in front of a 10,000 lux lightbox (with no UV) for 30 minutes every morning. This ritual can be built into your breakfast routine.
  • Wake up to a dawn simulator. Alarms can mimic the sunrise by slowly increasing brightness until it’s time to get up.
  • Get outside. Even just 15 to 20 minutes of ambient light a day can be helpful.

Focus #2: Maintain good sleep hygiene

  • Build better habits. Go to bed at the same time every night; don’t drink caffeine after 3 p.m.; avoid exercise right before bedtime; and limit screen time in bed.
  • Relax and unwind. Have a bedtime routine—perhaps taking a warm shower, drinking a glass of milk, or reading bedtime stories to your kids. Then, make sure you sleep in a dark environment that is calm and relaxing.

Focus #3: Consider medical options

  • Explore psychotherapy for 10 to 12 weeks. Cognitive behavior therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy can both help SAD.
  • Consider antidepressants. The same medications used to treat major depression can be used to treat SAD when taken over the fall and winter.

Of course, eating a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, limiting sugary products, staying well-hydrated, and exercising daily are important any time of year. However, healthy lifestyle choices go a long way toward maintaining good mental health during darker months.

At Vancouver Clinic, we believe your mental and physical health are intertwined, and follow a holistic approach when treating and supporting you. Call (360) 882-2778 to schedule an appointment.


Arundhati Undurti is a psychiatrist at Vancouver Clinic. She is particularly interested in women’s health.