5 Little Habits to Help Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

published Feb 20, 2022
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Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mental health condition marked by changes in mood that occur during the same seasons (typically the fall and winter) each year. SAD is often an additional diagnosis to those who already have a mood disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder. But SAD isn’t just about feeling glum. It can be an incredibly difficult mental health condition to live with.

“Depression isn’t just about sadness. In addition to changes in the body like physical pain and appetite changes, it also shows up as irritability, difficulty thinking straight, and apathy,” says Hillary Sullins, LMSW. “With SAD, a person’s energy levels are often zapped, making it a Herculean effort to get out of bed, go for a walk, look at emails, spend time with friends,” Sullins says. 

SAD can reduce one’s overall quality of life — but it can be treated through measures like therapy and antidepressants. Incorporating proper self-care into everyday habits is also incredibly helpful in combating the effects of seasonal affective disorder. “One of my personal favorite coping statements is, ‘Start before you’re ready,’ because eventually motivation follows action,” says Sullins.

Below are five habits that can help make living with SAD more manageable.

Take in all the light. 

Experts believe SAD occurs because of the shorter days and lessened daylight during the fall and winter, triggering a chemical change in the brain that leads to depression symptoms. While SAD can also occur during the spring and summer months, it is much less common.

Investing in a light therapy lamp can be very helpful. “We’ve found a way to artificially replicate the benefits of sunlight and longer days in the form of light boxes endearingly called happy lamps,” explains Sullins. “At-home treatment consists of sitting in front of these special lamps first thing in the morning for 10 to 30 minutes a day.” Sullins does stress that those with a bipolar disorder diagnosis should be careful if using a happy lamp because it may induce a manic episode. “Talk with your doctor first before embarking on at-home treatments of any kind,” Sullins recommends.

Making the most of the natural sunlight you do have will be beneficial as well. Going on a brisk walk and keeping the blinds open during the day can make a big difference in your SAD symptoms.

Set realistic, attainable goals. 

It’s important to understand that SAD can affect your productivity and ability to get things done. Be gentle with yourself and adjust accordingly. One way to practice self-compassion is by setting smaller goals that you can easily reach. This will give you a sense of accomplishment while still making sure you get what absolutely needs to get done, done. 

“Every little bit counts and we have to remember that our best is different day to day, month to month. That’s okay — just be honest with yourself about what your best is each day and focus on that,” says Sullins. “Be gentle, be kind, engage with the world and the people in it, focus on small wins to activate the upward spiral, and know that you’re not alone.”

Adjust your diet.

Eating a balanced diet impacts more than your physical health; it affects your mental health, too. Experts recommend adding foods high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, eggs, and walnuts as well as increasing fiber intake during the winter months to help improve your mood, especially if you struggle with SAD.

Intentionally seek out positive or helpful content.

With more time inside, it’s easy to just hop on your phone and start scrolling on TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever your social network du jour may be. It can be so easy to find negative, alarming, and upsetting content and news. While it’s important to be informed, it’s also easy to overdo the consumption of this type of content. This is why it’s important to balance out your doomscrolling with positive, helpful content. Curating your social feeds to create mood boards with inspiring quotes and happy imagery — whether your thing is cute animals or beautiful baked goods — can do more good for your mental health than you may realize. 

Find exercise you actually enjoy.

And, finally, get moving, but in a way that is the most enjoyable and feasible for you. You don’t have to do high-intensity interval training in order to get a good workout in. “Move the body in a way that feels good for you and not how you think you’re supposed to exercise,” says Sullins.

Long walks, yoga, and other low-impact movements may be more sustainable in the long run. Do your best not to compare yourself to what others are doing. Focus on what feels good for your body and mind — not anyone else’s.