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What To Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder

An expert weighs in on how to get through any winter blues you might be feeling.

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When the weather outside is dreary and cold, it’s natural to want to curl up in bed and hibernate. But for as many as 10 million people in the United States, that feeling can progress into something debilitating: Seasonal affective disorder.

Often appearing during the winter months and peaking in January (leading experts to deem it “the most depressing month of the year”), the depression experienced by many people with the syndrome known as seasonal affective disorder (or SAD) is expected to be intensified this winter as the pandemic continues.

“The weather can have substantial effects on a person’s emotional state,” says Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and author of Winter Blues. “Some people are more affected than others, probably on a genetic basis; also, women are more commonly affected than men.”

In most cases, SAD seems to be related to the loss of sunlight in the fall and winter. Researchers have found that reduced sunlight can affect the body a lot of different ways: by disrupting the body’s natural circadian rhythm (which relies on sunlight for regulation), dropping serotonin levels and/or creating a deficiency in vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin.”

[RELATED: 5 Reasons to Run Outside All Winter]

Common Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

While it is common to feel sluggish in the winter, people with SAD experience it to the max. Symptoms range from difficulty concentrating, an increased need for sleep, intense cravings for sweets and starches, weight gain, and withdrawal from friends and family.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “In most cases, seasonal affective disorder symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Less commonly, people with the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. In either case, symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.”

Other signs and symptoms of the seasonal disorder may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates

5 Tips for Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

The good news is the symptoms of SAD can be managed. Here are Rosenthal’s tips for getting through the winter.

1. Sweat it out

Though SAD can make you feel lethargic, it’s important to get off the couch and break a sweat each day. Exercise—especially aerobic forms like running and cycling—is proven to boost serotonin levels, which can help you kick S-A-D in the A-S-…well, you know.

2. Bring in some light

Outdoor light is ideal, but if the weather simply refuses to cooperate, talk with your doctor about the purchase and proper use of a light box, which has been found to be 50–80 percent effective in eliminating symptoms of SAD.

3. Practice self-care

We get it—sometimes, it’s all just too overwhelming. When your symptoms are particularly intense, feel free to say no to extra work or social obligations. “Reduce your stresses wherever possible, recognizing it is a difficult time for you,” Rosenthal advises.

4. Skip the sweet stuff

You may be craving them like whoa, but sugar and high-impact carbs are likely to make you feel worse, not better. Opt for a high-protein diet, which will boost your energy levels.

5. Know your triggers

Keep a journal of your symptoms. SAD tends to be cyclical, meaning it starts and ends around the same time of year. It’s also likely certain situations make it better or worse (a post-holiday crash, for example, or not sticking to a sleep schedule). This information can help you to be proactive about your SAD symptoms.

How to Help A Friend Affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you have a friend or a loved one affected by SAD, don’t let them deal with it alone. Here are just a few ways you can help:

  • Do workouts together. Go to her home and gently encourage her to join you for a run. If that’s too much, offer a walk around the block or a yoga video in the living room.
  • Suggest a checkup with a physician. Many people feel anxious about seeing a mental health professional but may be more willing to visit a family doctor.
  • Don’t try to “fix” it. Remember that being a compassionate listener is much more important than giving advice.

While it’s normal to have some days when you feel down, if you or someone you know feels down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your doctor. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide.