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4 Tips for Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder

December 9, 2022

man laying on a couch with white shirt and black pants, face turned toward the couch presumably sleeping, under a warm light with a glowing computer screen in the background next to large windows with a view of trees and mountains in (blueish) dusk setting

Amy Mauro

Starting in the fall and continuing through the long winter months, you might find yourself feeling lethargic and moody. Your appetite might increase or disappear, you might catch yourself oversleeping, feeling sluggish, and detached from activities that typically bring you joy.

While it can be tempting to chalk up your feelings as a case of the winter blues or seasonal funk, these are many of the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). 

With winter around the corner, we’ve asked Sarah Presson, LICSW with HBH to discuss what SAD is, including the causes and symptoms. Three of our mental health professionals with HBH will share their effective strategies to cope with SAD.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

According to Sarah Presson, SAD is a form of depression related to changes in the seasons. 

People with SAD typically start to experience symptoms in the fall and continue into the winter months, when there’s fewer hours of daylight and sunshine to enjoy. 

If you’re like most people with SAD, the decrease in daylight hours might discourage you from waking up on a routine schedule, venturing outside, or engaging in pleasurable activities.

What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Sarah Presson says that people who struggle with SAD typically experience symptoms of depression.

Frequently oversleeping is one symptom of SAD which can affect our internal clock and lead to missed obligations and opportunities.

Additional symptoms of SAD include: 

  • Increase or decrease in appetite 
  • Weight gain or weight loss 
  • Persistent low mood 
  • Feeling lethargic during the day
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Feelings of guilt, despair, or worthlessness 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Decreased sex drive

What are the Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is typically reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter fall and winter months, says Sarah Presson. 

People will often start experiencing symptoms of SAD after winding their clocks back an hour in November. 

The seasonal change and disappearance of daylight can disrupt a person’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm: triggering a person’s mood and energy levels. 

Sarah explained that the lack of sunlight can also affect the body’s normal production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel tired, and serotonin, the hormone that affects your mood, appetite, and sleep. The body can produce higher levels of  melatonin and lower levels of serotonin in the winter months, which can lead to feelings of depression.

4 Tips to Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder from our Therapists at HBH:

Those familiar with their mood changes during the darker months might prioritize self-care activities like journaling, Vitamin D supplements, and working with a mental health counselor. Others might experience more intense patterns of negative emotions and behaviors, and find it difficult to get unstuck. 

Here are four effective strategies to cope with SAD from our trained therapists at HBH:

1. Spending Time Outside

Bob Chabot, LICSW with HBH recommends spending time outside in the sunlight to manage the side effects of SAD.

Bob says that sunlight has been shown to increase the body’s natural production of melatonin which can reduce stress and improve sleep. An increase in serotonin from time outside in the sunlight can improve mood.

Bundle up for a 30 minute walk outside to improve your mood and overall health. Exposure to the outdoors, combined with physical movement, can improve brain function and energy levels throughout the day.

2. Light Therapy

Alexandra Malin, LMHC and Clinical Supervisor with HBH suggests increasing our exposure to sunlight throughout the day by using light therapy.

One recommended form of light therapy is a SAD lamp. These lamps, or light boxes, generate light that mimics outdoor light, far more extreme than indoor light. 

The light is absorbed through the eyes rather than the skin, and is thought to prompt a chemical change in the brain which can improve mood.

3. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Do you find yourself thinking about the colder and darker days through a negative and depressive lens?  

Sarah Presson, LICSW shares that Cognitive-Behavioral-Therapy (CBT) can be an effective therapeutic tool to restructure our negative thought patterns, and harmful or depressive actions. 

By working with a mental health professional who specializes in CBT you can learn how to identify negative or irrational thoughts when they arise, ultimately reducing their power over your feelings and behaviors. 

When you learn how to understand and challenge your thought patterns, you’ll find it easier to replace your negative thoughts with positive ones, leading to healthier habits.

4. Medication Management

While light therapy, self-care, and psychotherapy can be effective for people with SAD, others might need more assistance. 

Mark Monfasani, CNP says that the benefits of medication outweigh the risks, if symptoms are severe. SSRI antidepressants are prescribed medications which can help prevent depressive episodes for people with SAD. 

Keep in mind that it can take several weeks to notice full benefits from an antidepressant. 

Speak with your healthcare provider to learn more about antidepressants and if they would be beneficial for you.

The Takeaway

Millions of people struggle with SAD when the days begin to get shorter and the hours of sunlight shrink. Living with this form of depression, characterized by the change in seasons, can be difficult for people to fully understand and accept. 

Fortunately, people with SAD can benefit from effective strategies to manage their symptoms throughout the season. From spending 30 minutes outside and absorbing the sunlight, to implementing light-therapy, accessing mental health services, and medication management, there are many strategies to support people with SAD. 

Our trained therapists at HBH provide a dedicated space to process emotions, monitor symptoms, and develop healthy coping strategies. We proudly serve the entire community of Massachusetts from our offices in Amherst, Franklin, West Springfield, and Wilbraham.

If your or your loved one is struggling with SAD, please contact us today at (413) 343-4357 to schedule an appointment with one of our trained therapists.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.

Mark Monfasani, CNP Headshot

Mark Monfasani is a Nurse Practitioner with graduate training in physical medicine and mental health, and experience working in community health, LGBT health and HIV care. He sees himself as an equal and an ally with clients, which shows in his calm, casual personality and light humor, as well as in his respect for sensitively working with each person in their own individual context.

Sarah Presson Headshot

Sarah has extensive experience working as a clinician, and has been in the field for nearly two decades. She has worked in community mental health settings providing support to local communities and families. Sarah has also worked as a Social Worker in multiple levels of care, both in outpatient, inpatient and crisis settings. More About Author →

Bob Chabot Headshot

Bob earned an MSW from the Smith College School for Social Work, and did post-graduate work at the Family Institute of Westchester. Over the years, he has worked extensively with children and families in both residential and outpatient settings. Additionally, in his private practice, he has worked with adults and couples. More About Author →

Alexandra  Malin Headshot

Alexandra has been a practitioner in the field for 16 years.  She has a Masters of Art in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Lesley University and is licensed as a Mental Health Counselor in the state of Massachusetts. She has had the pleasure of training masters and doctoral level clinicians and interns and truly loves teaching others about mental health. More About Author →