10 Ways to Fight Seasonal Affective Disorder


Last weekend we “fell back” for Daylight Saving, the unofficial start of Seasonal Affective Disorder season as we are forced to cope with shorter days, longer evenings.

My Honey Badger Revolution co-contributor intimately describes how SAD affects her here; going through old posts on my green blog I can hear my enthusiasm for nature, exercise, being outside, writing, or life in general being tuned way down as soon as November hits. It’s really hard to enjoy fall, beautiful as it is, when you’re all too aware that the starkness and isolation of winter follows.

She and I are far from alone. Between 4% and 6% of Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder; an additional 10-20% experience a milder winter-onset SAD. Three of four SAD sufferers are women.


crying giant


From the Mayo Clinic:

Seasonal affective disorder is a subtype of major depression that comes and goes based on seasons. So symptoms of major depression may be part of SAD, such as:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Fall and winter SAD
Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, 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

A SAD diagnosis is likely if you’ve gone through this at least three times and your symptoms go away in spring and summer. (If anything, I become a bit manic in the spring. And if you asked my family to describe me right now this list would be frighteningly accurate.)

If you’ve recognized a pattern of SAD in your life, a visit to your doctor is in order. They can talk you through treatments and if necessary prescribe something to smooth out the rough patches. There is no shame in not wanting to be depressed, much like there is no shame in tapping out on fully experiencing the pain of childbirth. I’ve weathered both and it doesn’t make me any better than anyone else. There’s no need to play the hero here, and the longer you wait the harder it will get to seek treatment.

Some years have been better than others for me. I think the severity of the weather probably plays a part, and it’s possible I’m “growing out of it”— it appears that the risk of SAD lessens as you age. But I thought it would be helpful to share the common sense steps I take to fight Seasonal Affective Disorder every year; some are backed by science, some may be no more than the placebo effect, but that’s ok with me. Whatever works, right?

In full disclosure, I’ve included some Amazon affiliate links to the products I use below; if you decide to click through and buy anything, I’ll get a few cents on the dollar.


fighting seasonal affective disorder



If I’ve learned anything after nearly a decade of blogging, it’s that my seasonal sadz are so cyclical and predictable I can practically set a watch by them. By Thanksgiving I’m cranky and already tired of the Christmas chaos. I tend to rally some Yuletide cheer and hope for the future for the last week of the year, then go silent for a while other than to bitch about a groundhog and the nonsense that is Valentine’s Day. March is always rough. After months of being cold and unmotivated, the relentless grey rain of March nearly breaks me every year.

Obviously I didn’t start blogging to track my depressive symptoms, but being able to see my mood change predictably year to year has been very helpful; it gets me through the worst of it knowing that relief will come in the spring.



SAD is likely caused by our circadian rhythms being thrown out of whack from less exposure to sunlight (exacerbated by Daylight Saving and the fact that most people spend these shortened daylight hours in a windowless corporate environment).

seasonal affective disorder light

I turn on this Seasonal Affective Disorder light in the morning for 20 minutes or so before I wake my daughter up and it definitely jolts me awake physically and mentally; I’m not nearly so tempted to nap and massively screw up my sleep cycle even more. It’s small, so I can move it from room to room; you could also easily toss it into a carry-on bag for traveling.


Outdoor Time and Vitamin D

Vitamin D is the “sunshine vitamin,” and studies suggest that about half of the world’s population is Vitamin D deficient. Research also indicates a link between D deficiency and depression, although causality isn’t certain (does the deficiency make us depressed, or does depression somehow render us unable to absorb or use the vitamin?). Given that SAD is linked to less exposure to sunshine and disrupted circadian rhythms, plus the general health benefits of being in nature, it makes sense to make an effort to soak up the sun as much as possible during the fall and winter months.

Keep in mind that you don’t reap the same benefits sitting inside in a splash of sunlight; sunshine doesn’t penetrate glass that way. Nor can it penetrate properly applied sunscreen. Also, the angle of the sun is different at this time of year and depending on how far north you are, you may need more time in those rays.

Be conscious of how much vitamin D you get via your diet (eggs with yolks and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna) and consider a supplement as well.


fall sunshine


Get Up, Stay Up


I know, it’s so freaking hard to get up in the morning when you’re not feeling awesome, and that goes double triple when it’s cold and dark. But hitting the snooze button just adds another layer of dread to your morning, and every time it goes off your adrenaline goes through the roof. When you drift off for a couple of minutes only to be jolted awake again, you’re pulling your brain and body out of sleep during a disadvantageous period, causing a sleep inertia that can take hours to recover from. That means sluggishness, impaired memory, poor decision making, disruption of your body’s circadian rhythms and pretty much wasting your morning and making you feel bad about your life.

The ideal situation here is to wake up naturally at the end of an REM cycle— when I’m in a good sleep routine, I find I wake up a minute or two before the alarm. Since most of us have a non-negotiable time we need to be up by, start with that, count backwards 7 hours, and then keep pushing your bedtime a little earlier until you find your sweet spot.

Once it’s time to get up JUST GET UP. I swear, it’s worth it.


Other Vitamins

The studies on taking vitamin supplements are mixed— generally speaking, people who take vitamins tend to be healthier overall, but that may be because if you’re the type of person who dependably takes a vitamin, you probably also have other healthy habits in place. So in theory you should aim to be the type of person who takes vitamins but save the money.

That said, I like to think of myself as a vitamin taking type but if I’m being honest I know my day-to-day diet is lacking. I take a multi and during the fall and winter months I’ll also take additional supplements on the days that I remember. (Worth noting: I take them in gummy form because I hate pills.) These are the ones I felt made a difference in regards to Seasonal Affective Disorder.

  • Magnesium deficiency is another state that is linked to depression and anxiety. Magnesium suppresses the release of stress hormones from the hippocampus and can help block stress hormones into the brain; stress causes us to waste the magnesium we do have. Magnesium also helps reduce blood pressure and keeps your digestive system moving. Good food sources are nuts and seeds, dark green veggies like broccoli and spinach, whole grains, bananas. I’ve not yet found a gummy magnesium; I go with Nature Made for this one.
  • Vitamin B12 helps to regulate the nervous system, and deficiency has also been linked to depression and stress. It’s needed to convert carbs into glucose— so taking B12 serves to fight fatigue and increase energy. Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods, so meat, dairy, fish, eggs. Also, these gummy B12 vitamins are my favorite. They’re really tasty.
  • Melatonin regulates your sleep and wake cycles; levels in your body are affected by the amount of light you receive. Not enough light leads to lowered melatonin, which leads to disrupted circadian rhythms and, you guessed it, depression. Taking melatonin 20 minutes before bedtime helps you to fall asleep faster and stay asleep better; better sleep almost always makes for a better morning. I don’t take these all the time, just at the beginning of the season or on nights I suspect I’m going to have a hard time falling asleep for whatever reason.




Exercise Often

Exercise clears your head and releases those feel good hormones short term, and pushes you to feel better about yourself when you stick with it long term. It helps us to sleep better and can strengthen circadian rhythm, although you may need to experiment to find the best time of day for you (some people will find it harder to fall asleep too soon after exercising). AND, a pertinent Seasonal Affective Disorder benefit: exercising for one hour outside, even under cloudy skies, is as beneficial as 2.5 hours of indoor light treatment.


Get Dressed to Shoes

This is a phrase I learned from the FlyLady a long time ago and it’s always stuck in my mind. I can’t quite remember her exact reasoning for it, but here’s mine:

  • The best part of going to a party is choosing what to wear and getting ready to go.
  • When you look good you feel good.

It’s soooooo easy to fall into a trap of not caring what you look like because you have nowhere to go and no one to impress, and next thing you know you feel like hell because you haven’t showered in days and it feels like such an effort to even bother. Nope. Put some thought into an outfit— not just your cleanest sweats— including some kickass shoes. Do your face and hair. Even if, maybe especially if, you have no place to go.

Are the days of winter sunshine just as sad for you, too? When it is misty, in the evenings, and I am out walking by myself, it seems to me that the rain is falling through my heart and causing it to crumble into ruins.

―Gustave Flaubert


Now Go Somewhere

You need that sunshiney outdoor time, remember? But I’m taking it a step further. Plan out your week and put something outside of the house on the schedule for every day. It doesn’t have to be a big deal: go to a park to take pictures, hit the library and take out some magazines, try a new takeout place, visit a museum, see a movie. One or more should be plans with friends or family so you can’t back out. Exercise counts but you need to mix it up— 30 minutes doing the same thing at the gym every day doesn’t break up the monotony effectively. At least twice a month there should be something you’re genuinely looking forward to.

For me, the real slide into depression comes when the days all feel the same and start running into each other and the voice I hear most is the one inside my head. The inertia becomes more and more difficult to overcome and at my worst I become overwhelmed by fullblown agoraphobia.

Maybe you won’t get out every day as planned, and that’s not something to add to your plate of self-recrimination. We all have off days. The act of planning reminds you that it’s in your power to keep moving, and that you deserve to enjoy yourself, and that it doesn’t take a whole lot to add something good to your day. But a whole lot of the time, it does help your mindset if you literally change your perspective.


Three Things; A Feeling of Gratitude

Speaking of changing perspective…

As human beings, we’re not hard wired to be sunshine and rainbows all the time; Seasonal Affective Disorder magnifies that. In Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin Seligman says that

For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So to overcome our brains’ natural catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well.

Studies have shown that a daily ritual of practicing gratitude can chip away at depression. It makes sense; when you consistently look at the down side of events, it becomes habitual; you physically carve a neural pathway. It takes a lot of work to carve a new one, to have a less dismal outlook become your default. It’s a skill that requires training.

It’s suggested that you keep a gratitude journal where you list three things you are grateful for, or three things that went right that day, before you go to bed. It’s going to feel dumb but I promise you’ll get used to it. Or, another idea along the same vein is Gretchen Rubin’s One Sentence Journal, which gives you a quote to reflect on each day and then you write one sentence about your day. The nice thing about her journal is that it goes for five years but you return to the same page each year, so you can quickly see how much you change, how much you stay the same.


water glasses


Drink Lots of Water and Limit Alcohol

I like a glass of wine or bottle of beer as much as anyone, but while it can take the edge off the sadz it’s seriously not your friend. Alcohol can intensify emotion or dull your existence even further. It makes you foggy in the morning. It can pull you deeper into isolation. It inhibits your ability to absorb or activate Vitamins D, B12 and magnesium. And it can disrupt your restful sleep and your body’s response to light and dark (therefore affecting circadian rhythms).

Being dehydrated can lead to fatigue, mental fuzziness and perceiving everything as more difficult. It can increase tension, moodiness and anxiety, and these changes are more acutely felt in women. I always chug a big glass of water before bed because I feel like crap in the morning and it’s a struggle to get out of bed if I don’t.

60% of your body is water. Your brain is about 75% water. Water moves nutrients around the body and flushes out toxins. This is one of the easiest changes to make to feel better and yet, for me, one of the hardest.


if winter comes


Hang in there. You are not alone.

I want to stress again: if you’re suffering from depression, seasonal or otherwise, please talk to your doctor about it. I find mine to be manageable now, but I spent many years struggling with crushing sadness and paralysis, and self-loathing from feeling that way. If I could go back and be counseled on a way to avoid that, I would.

Depression is real and not to be taken lightly. I’ve been through enough cycles at this point in my lifetime that I now usually recognize the signs that I’m in danger of sliding down deep. These are just the common sense ways I employ to stay above the waterline throughout the year, and I double down through the fall and winter.

If you have more tips for fighting Seasonal Affective Disorder, I’d love to hear them.



10 Health Benefits of Sunshine
Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D?
Is the snooze button bad for you?
Magnesium and the Brain: The Original Chill Pill
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Is Alcohol Disrupting Your Sleep?
Dehydration Influences Mood, Cognition


  1. This is an awesome post. I found out that I am having troubles waking up in the morning because I push the snooze button because of your post. Now maybe I will start having more productive days. Thank you for posting this.

  2. This is an awesome post. I found out that I am having troubles waking up in the morning because I push the snooze button because of your post. Now maybe I will start having more productive days. Thank you for posting this. Sorry I posted the wrong web address for my blog. You may delete the other reply.

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