Feeling SAD? 3 Ways to Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder

by UB therapist Alyssa Yeo, LPC.

It’s February in Chicago, and that usually only means one thing… cold. It’s cold, it’s snowy, and it’s a rare occasion when the sun shines.

For many, this is the most difficult time of year.  The lack of sunshine, amount of time spent indoors, and increased stress at work or at home can leave you feeling more depressed, irritable or tired than usual. Unlike major depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) symptoms appear during late fall or early winter, and dissipate during the spring and summer months when there’s more sun. While the length and specific timing of SAD may vary from person to person, symptoms usually affect individuals at the same time each year.  The symptoms of winter-onset SAD may include:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

These symptoms may impact your ability to function at work or in social situations, which can trigger unhelpful feelings toward yourself and a destructive cycle of negative thoughts and emotions. Research has found that you may be at an increased risk for SAD if you are a woman between the ages of 15 and 55, or if you have a family history of depression.

While you may shrug off your feelings as the normal winter blues, if you think about it, these negative symptoms can account for one-third to one-half of your entire year! Instead of hibernating and succumbing to misery this winter, here are three things you can do to help improve your mood and energy.

Exercise: Exercise is a proven method for reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and is an effective way to boost your mood and stay in shape. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins — a chemical that triggers positive feelings and reacts with receptors in your brain to reduce your perception of pain. Any type of exercise can produce these results, and committing to a regular routine is a simple way to combat symptoms of SAD.

Although exercise may be the last thing you want to do during the cold winter months, you can increase your motivation by partnering up with a loved one or friend, or by being creative about the types of workouts you do. You can check out indoor exercise programs you’ve been meaning to try, like a yoga studio in your neighborhood or a class at your gym.

Talk Therapy: You don’t have to have a major life event or traumatic experience to benefit from therapy.  Working with a counselor is a healthy way to process some of the thoughts and emotions that are causing you to feel down. In fact, research has shown that verbalizing feelings can have a significant effect on the brain, making your sadness, anger or pain less intense.

Therapy can help you learn tools and techniques for identifying negative thought patterns, so you can start to regain control of your mood and emotions.  So while you may not be able to control the weather, you can control the way you respond and process your thoughts and emotions during these winter months.

Light Therapy: Even though the harsh cold is difficult to cope with, SAD is believed to be more related to the lack of sunlight than the actual temperature. Experts have found that in darker months the body increases its production of melatonin, a chemical that helps regulate sleep and can cause symptoms of depression.

One proven way to combat this effect is with light therapy (also known as phototherapy), which works by sitting close to a special “light box” for 15 minutes to one hour per day. The boxes provide a level of light intensity that can imitate the light we receive on a bright sunny day.  Studies show that bright light works to stimulate the cells in the retina that connect to a part of the brain that helps control circadian rhythms. Activating this area of the brain can restore a normal circadian rhythm and thus banish seasonal symptoms .

Light boxes are shown to be most effective when used in the morning, at approximately the same time every day. Although you have to keep your eyes open when the light is on, you should not stare directly into the box. Most people find time to use light boxes while reading, eating, or doing work.

Please note that light boxes are not for everyone, and there have been individual side effects reported. Be sure to do your own research before purchasing a light box, and consult with your physician if you are unsure about how it may impact you.

1 Mayo Clinic (2014, Sept 12). Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Retrieved from


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4 Wolpert, S. (2007, June 21). Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects in the Brain; UCLA

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5 Miller, C.M. (2012, Dec 21). Seasonal affective disorder: bring on the light. Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved

from http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/seasonal-affective-disorder-bring-on-the-light-201212215663

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