5 Ways To Fight Back Against Seasonal Affective Disorder

On Monday morning I woke up and laid in bed for an indeterminate amount of time and thought about: a) every mistake I ever made, b) every person I ever hurt, and c) what a monster I am. On Monday afternoon I found myself back in bed, under the covers, thinking about the most catastrophic ways I could (and probably would) fail at love and life. By 5:30 it was completely dark in my bedroom and that’s when I realized what the pitch black hell was going on. I hadn’t seen the sun all day! Daylight Savings Time had ended and Seasonal Affective Disorder time had arrived. I got out of bed, drank a very cold glass of water, turned on all the lights in my house, and did some jumping jacks to try to snap my head out of it.

A lot of people think of Seasonal Affective Disorder as depression-lite. That’s not it at all. It’s real depression — complete with all the classic symptoms: withdrawal, fatigue, sleeplessness, hopelessness, inability to concentrate, anxiety, obsessing about that time you made a joke in fourth grade and no one laughed — that coincides with fall and winter stealing the sunlight from the sky. I’ve been dealing with SAD all my adult life, and especially since I moved to the northeast where daylight lasts about as long as my lunch break from November to March. I’ve learned a lot about coping, and about making things easier on myself by noticing and addressing my symptoms before I’m in the midst of a full-blown depressive spiral. SAD isn’t fixable for me, but here’s how I’ve learned to fight back against it.


Sunlight!

Most researchers believe the drop in serotonin caused by lack of sunlight is what fuels most people’s SAD. That means you gotta squeeze as much sunlight out of the dark days as you possibly can. Go for a walk. Go for two walks. (I know it’s cold, put on a coat!) Even though the sunlight is grayer in the winter it’s still sunlight. It doesn’t have to hit your skin to work; it just has to register with your eyes so they can stimulate your hypothalamus so it’ll tell your circadian rhythms to get with the program. If you can sit near a window while you work or study, do that. Throw open the blinds and let that drab sunlight in.

Artificial light!

A lot of people swear by light therapy boxes and, hey, I am one of those people. I personally like the Philips goLITE BLU Energy light boxes as opposed to the white light ones. You’re not supposed to stare straight at them and when mine is on it makes it feel like the sunniest day in the neighborhood in my periphery. It almost always improves my mood and also almost always gives me a little nudge out of the SAD lethargy that dogs my steps every second of the winter. Also, just turning on any lights that make you feel good is a solid move, even just a couple of lamps that glow a nice soft yellow light. I use my light box first thing in the morning and then again around 5:00 when the sun has officially set. (If you’re bipolar, you should consult your doctor before trying artificial light therapy.)

Exercise!

Yeah, that old yarn. But it’s true. All the things that make your body feel good — serotonin, dopamine, endorphins — get released right into your bloodstream when you exercise. Plus, being healthier physically is good for your health mentally. Double plus, when you make your body do something you feel BLECH about you have scored a victory that will empower you to score more victories. Sometimes in the winter when I can’t make myself get out of my pajamas or leave the house, I just ride my stationary bike in the living room while playing a video game where I stab men, like Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate or something like that. It’s a win-win-win.

Meditation!

The reason I won’t shut up about meditation is because meditation has changed my life more than anything I can remember since I morphed into an adult. It’s actually one of the reasons I think I was able to identify the symptoms of SAD the day they started this year instead of realizing it in the middle of January while sleeping inside a blanket fort I hadn’t managed to leave in two weeks. Because I have ADHD I just assumed I’d never be able to mediate, but at A-Camp a couple of years ago, Dr. Liz Castle told me she also has ADHD and anyone can meditate. She showed me the way. (She even showed me the research that meditation and mindfulness can literally change the neural pathways in your brain to help you physically not get as stressed out and anxious.) Now I use the Headspace app, which I know is definitely not for everyone, but is absolutely for me. 20 minutes a day with Headspace makes me calmer, happier, gentler (with myself and other people), and more aware of what’s going on with my brain and body. Another app a lot of people like is Calm, and it has the added bonus of various white noises and a woman narrator.

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Sleep!

One of the worst thing about depression is how it makes you so tired but also refuses to let you sleep — and not getting enough sleep makes SAD much worse. Regular life things are already harder when you’re struggling with SAD; you don’t need the added sluggishness, irritability, and inability to focus that come from not getting enough sleep. You have to guard your sleep like a dragon guards her treasure, which is a pretty good metaphor because my therapist is always telling me sleeping is like depositing energy into my body bank. Try not keeping your phone in your bedroom, or try keeping it out of reach, or keeping it on do not disturb mode a few hours before bed. Try that with all screens. Drink a soothing tea. Take a warm bath. Buy a fancy sleep mask. Invest in some sleeping headphones. Listen to ASMR videos. Do whatever you need to do to get your brain and body ready for bed.

Even when I do all of these things and eat my vegetables and take my vitamins, the winter months are really tough for me. Doing this stuff doesn’t make my SAD symptoms go away, but it does make them more manageable. What are some of your SAD coping strategies?

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior writer who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1084 articles for us.

34 Comments

  1. What did you think about the SAD episode of Broad City from a couple weeks ago? I thought the intentions were good (the final message being that if meds help you feel better you shouldn’t feel bad about taking them), but I couldn’t tell if I thought the comic heightening of the light box was insensitive/reductive.

    • i actually loved ilana trying to intensify the light box bc it felt so real?? like, even though i think a lot of us are very much so on the No Stigma for Mental Illness (TM) train, there’s also this idea that upping your dosage in the winter is weak and sometimes i feel like i do the silliest things to help myself instead of just being like “my brain has stuff going on, lemme help it.” i loved it.

  2. This is great. I used toclive in the south of France where I got the most wonderful amount of sunlight every winter and things were fine!

    And then I moved to the UK and the past two winters have been brutal. I finally did something about it last February and got on antidepressants and they really helped.

    Now I wanna try to manage SAD as soon as it comes in.

    I’ve had a couple of people recommend headspace so I’ll give it a try. And I’ve heard good things about that Philips light and might buy it for myself as a Christmas present too.

    Another thing I want to try is to actually lean into the seasonal rhythm. Yes things are rough for me in winter months but so it is for a lot of things in nature. Maybe I can learn to accept that I’m not as productive, not as energetic, not as fun, and just be mindful of what kind of person i am in the winter.

    • Ohhh, seasonal rhythm. That clicked a couple things for me; thank you. I moved to the south after ~25 years in the midwest and am still learning to cope with the loss of winter and all of the ways I used to spend that time hunkered down, storing up for summer. This is a new way to frame it and hmm. Maybe I can use this fake winter (where is the snoowwww and the tea and the howling wind and the blankets) more wisely with that perspective.

  3. I think the Heather Hogan Roomba Repair video should also be listed as a way to fight back against both SAD and the patriarchy.

    Heather, thank you for this list. It will definitely help make these winter months more manageable :)

  4. Every year it surprises me all over again how incredibly shitty it can be that first week after the end of Daylight Savings Time. I almost started crying while walking home from work in the dark on Tuesday. You are absolutely right about going for walks! To keep functioning as a human being until March I try and get outside and exercise whenever I can during the daylight hours, and then when it gets dark a few short hours later, I put on warm sweaters, drink a lot of tea, light candles, and turn on all the lamps in the house. I live in the South where it doesn’t even get that cold or dark compared to other places so I feel like kind of a wimp, but I still hate winter so much anyway!!

  5. Wait I’m sorry are you telling me my insomnia getting worse in winter months despite only ever wanting to be in bed is a symptom if my SAD?! Who knew!

    And listen I’ll try all these things you mentioned but what on earth am I supposed to do WITHOUT SCREENS before bed?! Are you MAD?!?!?!

  6. I literally read this while lying in bed at 11:30 am.
    But instead of commenting, I got up, got some stuff done, walked to the gym and back and all during daylight.
    So, thank you, I guess.
    I try to take all of my vacation time during the dark time of the year, substitute Vitamin D (600-1000 units a day suffice for regular upkeep, 85% of people in Northern climes have a lack of it, though, so 20.000 units a week for four weeks might also be an ok idea if you didn’t get out much) and try to ride my bike as long as possible (exercise AND daylight!)
    A few years back I invested into some thermal gear that actually allows me to ride it for two months longer than before. I REALLY try evening out my shortage of neurotransmitters with exercise. So I take a lot of vitamin c and immune boosters to not fall off the bandwagon of work and exercise. And I try to keep things interesting with new work out programs, (zombies run and nerd fitness this year, runtastic and Darebee last year). This winter I will add Capoeira and see if my budget is up for getting into the virtual cycling thing.
    Also, flannel.
    Since I have the temperature regulation capacity of a newt I need to be semi warm to not hide under the covers or at home all day.
    So turning up the heat has helped me get out of bed and adding layers has helped me get out of the house.
    I really do hate winter…

  7. Having a routine really helps. Go to bed every night at the same time. No matter how tired or grumpy you feel, get out of bed everyday at the same time. Take a shower, put on clothes that you feel amazing in and make yourself a nice healthy breakfast. During the day I try to stay busy and get things done, crossing of things of my list. With this weather I am much more forgetful, so making a list is good in general. I put even the smallest tasks, like ’email this or that person’, ‘make this or that for lunch’ on this list so I can cross off a lot and have something to look forward too (food) – it makes me feel productive and useful.

    Also, I try to think of the nice things winter has to offer; cool sweaters that I finally get to wear again, putting a lot of effort into cooking things that I wouldn’t eat in the summer, lightning candles and little lights everywhere etc. And when I can, I try to read something funny before I go to bed, so that I go to sleep feeling good. It helps me have pleasant dreams which in turn help me feel good when I wake up in the morning.

  8. Thank you for your suggestions and insights, Heather!

    I wanted to add a personal suggestion that has worked wonders for me: a room humidifier. One of the things I hate most about winter is the drop in humidity and how dry and itchy my skin gets and it feels so nice to be in a warm wet room. The humidifier itself also has a nice soothing sound imo. Also it helps me get out of bed if I can tolerate being in the room without being buried under the covers.

  9. Also with my lightbox, I sit in front of it for 45 minutes before 8 am or it isn’t as effective for me. I was only doing 30 minutes one year because I forgot I needed 45 minutes, and those 15 minutes really made a difference

  10. thank you so much Heather (you’re my fav!) I have chronic depression/dysthymia and in the winter months it gets much worse. It’s nice to really see how much little things can improve it. Sunlight is really really important, as well as having daily routines and a structure. Also, I’ve found that being unapologetically gentle to yourself is really the only thing that’ll help, even if it’s the hardest. I am disabled (CP and autistic) and it’s so hard to acknowledge that I face difficulties during my studies. I’m already in 5th semester and my executive dysfunction has made it impossible to write one single paper. I was determined to write the one for this semester, but I could not. I simply could not. I felt like a loser and questioned my ability to go to uni at all, which to me felt like questioning my worth as a human being. What is helping a lot is a friend who makes me respect my limits and makes me feel loved and like I’m not a disappointment for being me. Also, currently my insomnia is terrible, but I’m floating on ahigh since I finally found a good therapist this week and he makes me write down three things that made me happy everyday. This activity is really helping me appreciate the smalll things, the love that surrounds me, moments of serenity. It makes me feel hopeful and humble and grateful and patient with myself.

  11. I’d also put in a recommendation for one of those alarm clocks that gradually lights up for half an hour before your alarm goes off. I just got one this fall, and it’s made a huge difference in my ability to haul myself out of bed in the pitch black and go to the gym. Early morning workouts are pretty much essential for me to a) feel awake during the day, and b) actually sleep at night.

    I am glued to my light box during the winter. I know they say that 30 minutes should be sufficient, but it definitely isn’t for me. I use mine during breakfast and then several times throughout the day, whenever I’m at my desk. If a light box helps, you might want to keep a spare bulb in stock – mine broke a few weeks ago, and I was a complete wreck by the time the replacement arrived 10 days later.

  12. I really appreciate this post; great tips also for someone who’s depression is not really affected by the seasons too much (I guess?)

    “She even showed me the research that meditation and mindfulness can literally change the neural pathways in your brain to help you physically not get as stressed out and anxious.”

    Is this openly accessible material? Would you mind sharing, if you mean any study in particular? I’d be really interested to read some more about it. (Yes, I’ll also google :D )

  13. THANKYOU FOR THE BIPOLAR ARTIFICIAL LIGHT MENTION! I am not bipolar (or I am but like, in a cyclothymic way?? HAHA IDK) but I inherited my Sads from a line of people with bipolar 2, and my sads react to antidepressants accordingly. I used a happy light for a short period, abt a year after my brain imploded, before I convinced my doctors that adderall doesn’t destabilize me / that mood stabilizers make me So Much More ADHD, and that little lamp JACKED ME UP. Heart racing, pacing, rhyming, speedy speech mixed hypomania! I caught it early and gave the light to a friend who needed it before it could topsy turvy my life as badly as prozac had

    I came here specifically to comment with a warning abt this. La Di Da

  14. Some specific tips if you can’t/won’t afford all those devices:

    – Home exercises that require no equipment: https://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/total-body-workouts. In front of a sunny window if you can.

    – Sort of the poor folk’s light box thing (this only works when the sun is out): Get properly bundled up and actually open a window, or if you’re running the heat, step outside and put your face in the sun. Set a 10 minute timer and make yourself do it periodically, exposing as much skin as possible to the sunlight. Heather is right that sunlight works indirectly, but whether it’s placebo or not you get more of a jolt when it’s direct (and any gardener knows there is some research explaining why direct vs indirect sunlight kills certain plants and how the different processing through skin may also exist in mammals). Combine that jolt of sun on your skin with the slap of cold in your face and you really will feel more invigorated than if you just sat in front of a window. Added bonus: if you get cold before your 10 is up, you get galvanized to start exercising right there. I live in a relatively mild winter with no frostbite danger and longer sunlight than many of y’all, so I know that tip isn’t as great for everybody but it works!

    – Cook your own meals, especially breakfast! It warms up the house and is a low-energy task to get you moving and make you feel accomplished. Now don’t make it stressful with fancy cooking if you’re not a cook. For the sake of warming up the house, focus on “dump” recipes where you just throw a bunch of shit into the oven for a while. Ordering out because you are depressed is one of those insidious ways to feed your own depression cycle. If you got time to wait for hour delivery while watching TV, you got time to cook it yourself!

    – Building off that, when you’re having trouble doing tasks, make yourself to-do lists with every little thing on them. Mine: wake up, stand up, put on coffee, wash face, make grits, drink coffee, rinse dishes, brush teeth, comb hair… y’all get the picture. If you’ve checked off a dozen things by the time you’re dressed, it’s less daunting when the next thing is “go to work”. Give yourself a bite of chocolate or a shot for every ten things. This is a major strategy of mine for year-round depressive episodes.

    – Vitamins B and D plus an iron rich diet (very cheap especially for omnivores) are the cheapest drugstore solutions to fatigue if you can’t make yourself buy the Omegas and overpriced multivitamins (that I’m sure work). D in particular is very cheap in bulk at my Walgreens and specifically helpful for SAD if lack of sunlight is what’s making your body so pissed.

    – If you need noise cancellation to sleep, all poor folks know how to insulate with towels, but also place a floor fan on high facing into your closed bedroom door or noisiest window. It cancels outside noise and the hum of the fan is a sort of ocean sounds light. It also (to a point) cancels noise coming out of your room, so if you have roommates and no fancy non-deafness-causing headphones you can just play music openly to fall asleep to. (IMPORTANT: it is genuinely not safe to fall asleep playing music in headphones that aren’t designed for it, esp. earbuds. That is not a rich folk’s marketing scam.)

    – Reading an actual book is proven by multiple studies to reduce stress and help sleep. (Don’t have time to find a link right now, but they exist!) Not collapsing asleep over a boring book, but reading something engaging for a period right before your planned bedtime will both clear and exert your mind. If you can’t keep yourself off screens without a sleep mask and headphones, it’s partly because you’re bored, so put your brain to work. Reading is active in a way that watching is not.

    – How to get warm from the inside out before sleep: hot decaf beverage plus DIY deep tissue salt massage. Epsom salt, which is designed for this, can sometimes be affordable in bulk- check Amazon- but if not, partially dissolve some of your basic giant box of Kosher sea salt (it must be sea salt) in warm water with a tiny drop of lemon juice (and if you have a favorite herb of essential oil throw it in while the water’s hot) but leave it as a kind of paste so it’s still grainy, and you or your partner massage your whole body slowly with deep pressure. Avoid open cuts! If you have cuts or injuries, skip the lemon juice just in case. This actually warms up your muscles so if you don’t have heat in your house and/or good blankets your body will be warm inside for several hours and not putting so much work into warming your extremities. If you don’t have a partner, still do your best to get your lower back/glutes, but focus on your legs and feet. And yes when you or your partner start approaching your upper inner thighs you may feel inspired to do something else that can help ya sleep. At another time of day, this kind of massage is a great precursor/follow up to meditation.

    – Figure out a safe way to heat up your sheets. There is no need for heated blankets or one use heat release patches. The safest ways are placing them on foil over a radiator, space heater, or fire. If you don’t have that, figure out what your sheets are made of and research a safe way to microwave or bake them. Try a foil-lined crockpot. If your sheets are synthetic and you’re afraid to try any of that, you can still do a little something by heating up your best heat-retaining oven safe material- wooden cutting boards, glass bowls, baking sheets, cast iron, stoneware, or stones you found outside-
    then turning off the oven and pressing your sheets between the heated material inside the oven while it’s cooling down. This can literally work with just rocks you can find outside, if they’re porous. Two large smooth flat ones are best, like the kind that line park pathways, but you could also take a bunch of those nice round small ones, like from a rich person’s driveway or fountain, and heat them up on baking sheets. I also find that falling asleep in warm sheets contributes to helping me wake up, because I’m still warm when I wake up, but my body remembers those fresh toasty sheets and I want to stand up and redo them. (Fair warning: if you’re baking them, over time your sheets will sort of burn and brown and maybe look like they’ve been peed on a lot by a dog and you didn’t throw them out.)

    – Speaking of DIY heat, who’s familiar with a rice bag? https://wellnessmama.com/24601/reusable-rice-heat-packs/ Fill a cotton sock or towel with a dry grain or bean and it can be safely baked or microwaved. The dry rice does not cook but retains warmth for at least an hour after it’s been slowly heated up. They also retain cold if put in the freezer and are an excellent DIY hot/cold therapy for sore muscles or injuries. If you’re good at sewing, one of these bags should last your whole life and can even go in the washing machine. I use them all year for a bum knee, but in winter my partner and I fall asleep with them under thin pillows (she has a shaved head and even with a hat that’s her biggest warmth problem) and sometimes one squished between our bodies.

    – Relaxation herbal scents really work, for sleep and bad moods. Scented candles, essential oil diffusion, or homemade potpourri if you grow herbs and save your fruit peels, whichever option is most affordable based on what you have. Drying your own herbs and fruit in the oven is another task that helps heat up the house.

    – For waking up gradually without buying a slow light-up alarm like someone mentioned in the comments, cover your windows with something translucent to gently let dawn creep over your bed without blasting you in the eyes. If your windows are covered with foil, replace it with porous brown paper. If you can get your hands on thin fabric, more the kind that’s meant for tablecloths than curtains, I recommend orange, red, or yellow because it filters sunlight very gently and is quite pretty. If neighbors can see into your window, privacy can be a concern here. No one can see through thin curtains while the light is off, but you may want to keep a real curtain or towel on hand for when you’re up and moving. Have a friend stand outside when you first change your curtains and let you know if you’re all backlit like a chick changing in a horror movie.

    – Do your best to keep your daily routine the same as it is in summer. If you’re too depressed or it’s too cold to go anywhere but work, don’t respond by sleeping more. Part of SAD is disruption of circadian rhythm; your body is just confused by the change. So using your strategies to keep warm and your artificial light, mimic a summer day inside your house as closely as you can, and treat yourself like a toddler by scheduling an evening of activities and a bedtime and refusing to let yourself give up before you’ve finished your crafts.

    I have more but I gotta get to work. #16 on this morning’s list.

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