How to brave the winter — and seasonal affective disorder


In this article:

  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) often occurs in the winter, causing a poor mood and low energy.

  • You can treat SAD with bright light therapy, activity and medication.

  • If you have thoughts of hopelessness, please reach out to your doctor for help.

How to brave the winter — and seasonal affective disorder

Sunlight affects our lives in all sorts of ways. It can boost our mood, help us build bone density or even change our sleeping patterns. When the sun disappears for the season, it’s easy to see why so many people start to feel like they have less energy. These feelings of depression and sleepiness could be seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called seasonal depression.

“SAD is more common in northern latitudes, which makes us think that it has something to do with the relative deficiency of sunlight we get at these latitudes during the winter months,” says Jake Choiniere, D.O., psychiatrist at Providence Swedish. “People who experience SAD can often look back and see this seasonal pattern of mood fluctuations and anticipate it in the future.”

If you have noticed that you feel down every winter, Dr. Choiniere says there are treatments available. Once the winter months arrive, you can seek out help to get through them with better energy and a better mood.

What are the medical treatments for SAD?

Fortunately, you can treat SAD at home, sometimes without medicine.

“The best treatment for SAD, based on the medical research, is bright light therapy,” says Dr. Choiniere. “This involves using a special kind of full spectrum lamp that delivers at least 10,000 lux light intensity, every morning, for 20-30 minutes a day.”

You can find these bright light therapy lamps online, but they aren’t all made equal. You need to find a lamp similar to those used in the research. Dr. Choiniere recommends using a light therapy lamp while you are working, having breakfast or even just getting ready for the day.

If bright light therapy is not enough, some people take medications during the gray months. You can talk to your doctor about taking antidepressant or mood-stabilizing medication starting in the weeks leading up to the typical timing of onset of SAD and through until the spring or summer.

What can I do at home to treat SAD?

In addition to the bright light therapy, it’s important to stay active during the winter, both physically and socially. Dr. Choiniere recommends:

  • Planning regular get-togethers with family and friends.
  • Buying good rain or winter clothes so you can get outside even when the weather is poor.
  • Walking regularly, especially if the sun is out.
  • Getting exercise through a gym or fitness class.

When should you talk to your doctor about your symptoms?

Seasonal mood fluctuations are quite common, but you should talk to your doctor about them if you have symptoms such as:

  • Feelings of hopelessness.
  • Trouble finding joy in activities you once loved.
  • Such low energy that it affects your daily activities and responsibilities.

If you have any thoughts of harming yourself, please reach out for help by calling 988. You can get support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through this free hotline.

Learn more and find a provider

If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, depression or anxiety, we’re here to help. Contact a Swedish behavioral health specialist for support.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Related resources

Seasonal affective disorder

3 ways to avoid triggering the post-holiday blues

Tips for managing the holiday blues

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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