Medically reviewed by Susan Vachon, PA-C on February 28, 2022
For people that experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it can have a real impact on their well-being. SAD is a mental health condition where you develop a form of depression based on the time of year. For most people, it happens in the winter — likely because of the shorter days and decreased natural light.
If you have SAD, it can be hard to stay positive, even if you know you’ll feel better in a few months. Instead of giving in to your depression, try using these tips to look on the brighter side of things. And if you feel like you need more help, never be afraid to speak with a medical professional about depression treatment.
1. Get Outside More
If you experience the more-common winter variant of SAD, getting outside more is a good way to stay positive because of two reasons. First, being outdoors can increase your exposure to natural light. Scientists don’t know for sure what causes SAD, but they believe the lack of natural light in winter might disrupt your body’s internal rhythm. This can lead to changes in brain chemistry that make you feel depressed.
Second, being outside is a good way to stay active and see what the world has to offer. Numerous studies have linked being in nature with greater happiness, improved well-being, better social interactions, and improved cognitive flexibility. In other words, green space is like a natural mind healer.
What are some things you can do outside? For starters, try going for a walk. The exercise will do your mind and body some good, and the change in the environment gives your mind something new to focus on. If you live in a place where winter means snow, you might also try skiing, snowboarding, or tubing.
2. Supplement with Light Therapy
In addition to natural light, increased exposure to artificial light via light therapy is an effective way to treat SAD. Light therapy works by helping to balance the activation of serotonin in your brain, a key chemical linked to mood and sleep. It can also help align your circadian rhythm, resulting in more stable and consistent sleep patterns.
During light therapy, you sit near a light box or specialized lamp that emits bright light and mimics natural outdoor light. You don’t need a prescription for light therapy devices and different models are readily available for purchase online. Most light boxes are portable and can be set on a dresser or desk for easy access. It is important to note that the light must enter your eyes indirectly—not just touch your skin—in order to be effective.
According to the Mayo Clinic, light therapy requires time and consistency and its effectiveness depends on the combination of light intensity, duration and timing. The general recommendation for treatment of SAD symptoms is to use a 10,000-lux light box at a distance of 16 to 24 inches from your face for 20 to 30 minutes. Early morning sessions are most effective for most people, but you can always talk to your medical provider to help figure out what works best for you.
3. Keep a Journal of Positive Moments
Journaling is good for your mental health even when you’re not in the midst of a seasonal affective disorder depression. It offers a way for you to sort through your feelings and possibly identify things that trigger negative emotions.
But to really take advantage of journaling, try to get in the habit of looking for five to 10 of the most positive things that happened to you during the day. With depression (and by extension, SAD), people get stuck in the mindset of thinking negatively. They’re more likely to see the glass as half empty than half full. Identifying the positives in your daily life can help you get into the habit of seeing the glass in a different way.
4. Set — and Try to Achieve — One Goal for Each Day
Setting goals when you have depression is tricky because if you don’t meet them, you might spiral even further downward. That’s why, with SAD, you can always start small with your goals and work your way to more challenging tasks.
For example, maybe your one goal of the day will be to get out of bed and put on regular clothes. This can be a real struggle for people in the midst of depression, but it’s also something that’s relatively simple. Even if you’re just in regular clothes for 10 minutes, you’ve met your goal and can take pride in that.
As you get used to hitting your goals, work up to more positive and inspiring things. Maybe you’ll cook a meal with a new, healthy ingredient. Or maybe you’ll finally reach out to that friend you’ve been avoiding. Even the smallest of tasks can give you a sense of accomplishment that can make you a little happier.
5. Use a Daily Activity Planner
Structure and routine are great ways to minimize depressive symptoms that accompany SAD. One way you can achieve this is by using a daily activity planner. There are a few different formats these can take, but basically, you’ll jot down what you plan to do, what you actually do, and how you feel during each activity. It may also help to sort the day by time blocks, like early morning, late morning, early afternoon, and so on.
Not only can this provide the necessary structure for your day, but it can also help you identify patterns in your emotions. Maybe you’ll notice that you always feel worse after eating lunch or seeing a certain person. Identifying these triggers can help you avoid them in the future. This can help you be happier in the long run.
6. Remind Yourself That This Won’t Last Forever
One of the key things people with SAD need to keep in mind is that their feelings of sadness won’t last forever. For most people, symptoms abate during the arrival of spring as the weather starts warming up. To try and motivate yourself, plan things you usually enjoy around this period, like a vacation or concert. That way, you’ll have something to look forward to as you emerge from your depression cave.
Even if you know your symptoms will ease up, that doesn’t mean you need to sulk and wait it out. There are treatments that can help you feel better now without giving up three or more months of your life. Talk to a medical professional to see what depression treatments might help you get out of your funk a little bit earlier.
Don’t Let SAD Make You Sad
Staying in a positive mindset is one of the best ways you can fight back against SAD. While there’s no foolproof cure for SAD, you can help yourself feel better mentally by using some of the above advice in your daily life.
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