How to Lessen Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Man grabbing back of head in frustration, with associated statistic that "Seasonal Affective Disorder affects 10 million Americans".

Billions of people around the world live in climates that change with the seasons. The hot, sunny weather of Summer turns to the crisp wind of Fall and then to the chilly rains and snows of Winter. While some revel in the changing seasons and cannot wait for “sweater weather,” others are severely emotionally impacted. Seasonal depression - or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) - often sets in when daylight becomes increasingly scarce. This could be due to shorter days overall or an increasing number of rainy or snowy days. Because natural light largely dictates our body’s circadian rhythm, lack of sunlight during the Winter can lead to disruptions in mental and physical wellness. Follow below to learn more about Seasonal Affective Disorder and how the symptoms can be lessened in a few simple ways.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Image of a sad woman with quote "of those who are affected by seasonal depression, four out of five are women".

According to the American Psychological Association, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression most common during the winter months and is often referred to colloquially as “Winter Depression”. Professional psychologists and psychiatrists refer to the disorder as “Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern.” The APA explains that symptoms typically arise “during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight." The APA notes that these symptoms "usually improve with the arrival of spring.” The majority of Americans experiencing SAD have their most significant symptoms during “January and February.”

While some might be dismissive of SAD, the APA underscores its severity and pervasiveness, noting that “symptoms can be distressing and overwhelming.” They further note that SAD “has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain." This imbalance is "prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter." As such, it is a serious physical health issue as well as a mental health issue. According to Psychology Today’s article on Seasonal Depression, “Seasonal Affective Disorder is estimated to affect 10 million Americans.”  and the disorder is “four times more common in women than in men.” The article estimates another “10 percent to 20 percent may have mild SAD.”

Symptoms of SAD

Quote "5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD [for] 40% of the year"

According to the American Psychological Association, Seasonal Affective Disorder is severe enough that it “can interfere with daily functioning." The APA notes that the majority of SAD sufferers first notice symptoms between 18 and 30 years old. However, development of the disorder can occur at any age. The APA lists common symptoms of SAD as “fatigue, even with too much sleep, and weight gain associated with overeating and carbohydrate cravings.” While symptom severity can range from mild and bearable to painful and oppressive, the majority of SAD-affected people have similar symptoms.

The APA describes other symptoms of SAD as “feeling sad or having a depressed mood...and feeling worthless or guilty.” SAD-sufferers may also experience changes in behaviour such as appetite and sleep issues, as well as “difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions.” They may also experience an “increase in purposeless physical activity or slowed movements of speech.” In very severe cases, sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder may lead to “thoughts of death or suicide.” If these thoughts arise, sufferers should immediately consult with a doctor.

Common Therapeutic Treatments for SAD

Quote "SAD is often treated with light therapy, antidepressant medications, talk therapy, or some combination of these".

According to the APA, SAD can be treated with “light therapy, antidepressant medications, talk therapy or some combination of these.” However, many sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder will not undergo any treatment. This is because symptoms often lessen as the seasons change. However, the American Psychology Association explains, “symptoms can improve more quickly with treatment.” Those who undergo light therapy are placed “in front of a light therapy box that emits a very bright light." This box also filters out UV light, which can be harmful on the eyes and skin. Light treatments conducted in the morning can jumpstart the circadian cycle similarly to the way in which sunlight does. Others might find talk therapy helpful. The APA notes that most SAD sufferers who benefit from talk therapy pursue “cognitive behaviour therapy.” In combination with talk therapy, a psychiatrist might prescribe “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,” which are a type of antidepressant drug.

What You Can Do at Home

Take Care of Yourself

Quote "Getting regular exercise, eating healthy, sleeping well and enough, and connect with friends, family, and the community can all help with SAD"

For SAD sufferers uninterested in or unable to pay for medical treatment, there are a few things you can do at home. The APA recommends increasing one’s exposure to sunlight in order to improve symptoms. You can do this by reorienting your home office so that your desk faces the window. You can also bundle up and have coffee or breakfast on your patio to achieve similar results to the light therapy techniques mentioned above. The APA recommends caring for your general health above all else, as a positive baseline for overall wellness is an excellent combatant against SAD. The APA encourages SAD-sufferers to get regular exercise, eat healthily, sleep well and enough, and connect with friends, family and the community.”

Add a Few Houseplants to Your Home Decor

Quote "A holistic way to improve the symptoms of seasonal depression is to start cultivating an indoor garden".

You might also be able to lessen mild symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder by adding a few houseplants to your home decor. In their article on SAD, Bloomscape notes that a “holistic way to improve symptoms of seasonal depression is to start cultivating an indoor garden.” Bloomscape explains that houseplants help diminish symptoms of SAD because simply “viewing plants and greenery” can shorten recovery time from illness or injury. Bloomscape references the NHS in their article, noting that British doctors agree houseplants can be healing. The NHS has reported UK doctors have “even started prescribing courses of gardening to patients to help encourage relaxation and stress relief.”

In general, houseplants boost overall mood and remind us of springtime, providing hope that the end of Winter is near. In her article “The Best Houseplants for Seasonal Depression” for Plant Snap, Kayla Fratt recommends a few symptom-reducing houseplants. Fratt’s favourites are Chinese Evergreen, Peace Lilies, Snake Plants, Jade Plants and Succulents. Each of Fratt’s recommended plants offers a calming effect on home interiors.