Five Ways to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Beat the winter blues with these expert tips.

seasonal affective disorder SAD

Illustration by Chris Gash

No matter how much you love the snow, there comes a time when puffer jackets and Nor’easters get old. For many of us, that time is right about now. If the cold and ice have you feeling a little, ahem, under the weather, you’re in good company. But if your winter melancholy is really bringing you down, you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). We asked Darshan Mehta, medical director at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, for help.

1. Take a Holiday

If ever there were an excuse for a vacation, this is it. “There’s a geographic variation of the prevalence of SAD based on latitude,” Mehta says. “This is more prevalent in Nordic countries, for example, than it is in sub-Saharan Africa.” Sneaking away to South Beach might be just what the doctor ordered.

2. Get Outside

Since SAD is largely a reaction to reduced daylight, taking an afternoon stroll may be beneficial—even if hiking over snowbanks makes you want to scream. “In the winter you need greater hours in the sun to get the same conversion of vitamin D, because of the latitude we’re at,” Mehta explains.

3. See the Light

But what if it’s impossible to leave the house? Park yourself in front of a light-therapy lamp and stay there for 30 minutes to an hour. Mehta suggests buying a 10,000-lux full-spectrum light or a blue light to best mimic the sun’s effects on the brain, and opting for morning sessions.

4. Make a Schedule

Keeping regular meal times and bedtimes, and adhering to an exercise regimen may give your mood a boost. “SAD has a circadian-rhythm component to it, hence why sleep is so important,” Mehta says. “Eating and exercise have also been shown to affect these rhythms.”

5. Talk It Out

Last but not least, anyone who may be experiencing SAD should discuss treatment with a doctor. “It’s a clinical decision, and that’s where working with healthcare providers is helpful,” Mehta says. If lifestyle changes aren’t working, antidepressants or behavioral therapy may do the trick.

darshan mehta mass general

What Is SAD, Exactly?

Mehta explains the root of your cold-weather gloom.

As the name suggests, seasonal affective disorder is a depressive condition brought on by the change in seasons. Unsurprisingly, it’s most often seen in winter.

“It is a response to reduction of sunlight, the changes in weather, going into colder weather,” Mehta explains. “When we think about things that have antidepressant qualities, it’s sunlight, being outdoors, being active. All three of those things are sort of taken away [during the winter].” Lessened daylight also disrupts circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, he says, which may affect mood.

Symptoms of SAD include depression, fatigue, and sleep disturbance. Those with a personal or family history of depression, as well as those in northern locales, are especially prone to the condition. Sound like you? Discuss your symptoms and concerns with a primary care doctor or mental health professional.