Your Guide To Managing Seasonal Depression During The Darker Months

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

Seasonal depression arrives at a time when many of us are at our most vulnerable. As the days get shorter, things can start to feel gloomier, and the stress of the impending holiday season grows on us. While the symptoms of winter blues are easily recognizable, it wasn't until 1984 that research in The Archives of General Psychiatry included the phrase "seasonal affective disorder" to describe the depressive episodes found in some populations. Today, the Cleveland Clinic reports that about 5% of Americans struggle with seasonal depression, also referred to as SAD.

Unlike other forms of depression, seasonal depression is distinguished by its annual appearance and typically lasts for the duration of the fall and winter months (via the Mayo Clinic). Feelings of dread, sadness, and anxiety are all associated with seasonal depression. Sufferers may even notice increased cravings for carbohydrates, especially at night, likely as a means to self-soothe. "The cravings for sweets and starches can be quite intense," psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal tells The Washington Post.

According to data compiled by CertaPet, you may be more at risk for SAD depending on your geographic location. Based on their analysis, those in the Northeastern United States seem to be the most susceptible to seasonal depression, while Southerners are less likely to feel its effects. That being said, anyone can develop symptoms of seasonal depression, even those in sunnier states. Fortunately, there are ways sufferers can navigate the complex feelings associated with SAD.

Use vitamin D to help combat SAD

Vitamin D is a major factor in why your mood is low during the colder months, especially for those living in areas that receive lower amounts of sunlight. If you tend to avoid the sun, wear liberal amounts of sunscreen, or work evening shifts, you're even more at risk for vitamin D deficiency. While there are numerous dietary sources of vitamin D, the SAD truth is that many of us don't always eat foods rich in this nutrient. According to Healthline, common sources of vitamin D include animal products like eggs, yogurt, and meats, which can spell trouble for vegans and strict vegetarians.

A doctor can determine whether you're truly deficient in vitamin D by running bloodwork panels (via Mount Sinai). Vitamin D deficiency symptoms can include anxiety, depression, muscle pain, and hair loss. Some may even notice improvements to their appearance after supplementing with vitamin D, like healthier-looking skin and nails.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means you can't excrete excess vitamin D from your body, and too much of it can lead to toxicity or severe health problems. According to WebMD, 400 to 800 IU (international units) is sufficient for most people. However, Harvard Health Publishing reports that the tolerable upper intake level (UL), or maximum amount that should be consumed daily, for adults is 4,000 IU. For an easy way to get added vitamin D without swallowing pills, try Carlson Super Daily D3 Drops, which provide up to 2,000 IU in a single drop.

Omega-3 supplementation to support brain health

Maybe you've heard about the omega-3 fatty acids found in foods like fish, but did you know that they can support healthy brain functioning? "Omega-3 fatty acids are involved in many different fundamental [brain] processes," neuroscientist Simon Dyall tells Time. According to a study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, those suffering from mental health ailments like depression are often deficient in omega-3s. "Research suggests depression rates have risen as our intake of omega-3s has fallen over the past 50 to 100 years," nutrition expert Gretchen Vannice tells Today's Dietitian. While the role of omega-3 hasn't been fully explored regarding seasonal depression, it may help mitigate the low moods associated with the disorder.

While it's best to consume omega-3 at the source, getting more fish into your diet can be challenging. Other sources of omega-3s include nuts, seeds, and fortified foods, such as eggs (via The National Institutes of Health). Those looking to supplement with fish oil can try OmegaVia Ultra-Concentrated Omega 3 Fish Oil Pills, which are independently tested for purity and quality. Even if you're a picky eater or opposed to eating seafood, there's no reason you can't supplement with essential fatty acids like EPA and DHA from vegan sources like algae. If you're interested in fish-free omega-3, look no further than Opti3 Omega-3 EPA & DHA, a quality vegan alternative to traditional fish oil supplements.

Light therapy can make all the difference

Autumn might be one of the most beautiful seasons, but the lack of sunlight can feel painful for sufferers of seasonal depression. For years, experts have suggested artificial lightboxes as a tool to ease into the darker days that accompany colder months. "What light therapy does is compensate for the lack of exposure that we get from natural sunlight," psychologist Adam Borland tells Cleveland Clinic. Traditional light boxes are used for about 30 minutes daily, often in the morning. Lightbox users should take caution never to look directly into the light source, as it may cause eye damage. "Staring at the light causes macular degeneration," Dr. Teodor Postolache tells The New York Times. That said, there's no harm involved when using the lightbox as a peripheral light source.

A bestselling lightbox option is the Verilux HappyLight VT10 Lux Therapy Lamp, a small but powerful lamp that maintains a 4.5-star rating on Amazon with thousands of reviews. One Amazon reviewer writes, "I highly recommend [Verilux HappyLight] if you suffer from seasonal mood disorders — they help!" If you're not quite ready to take the plunge, a contending product that operates slightly differently is the Philips SmartSleep Wake-up Light. Although it uses far less light than therapeutic lightboxes, some users even report that this sunrise simulation device helps negate the symptoms of SAD.

Spend some time outdoors for a fresh perspective

When you're depressed, everyday activities can seem like massive chores, and you might feel like spending most of your time indoors. However, going outdoors can be particularly beneficial for seasonal depression sufferers. A study published in Preventive Medicine determined that people who spent less time outdoors had higher incidences of depression and anxiety. "Seeing color in nature, like the little bit of greenery, and getting direct sunlight exposure, all of these things are good for mental health," Dr. Kelly Rohan tells Time. Though the daylight hours are best for optimizing your proximity to sunlight, you can go for walks during the evening hours if you prefer — sometimes, just getting fresh air can be enough to shift your mood.

Not sure where to go, or just looking for a change of pace? One helpful resource for finding scenic routes near you is AllTrails. Just plug in your town or city, and their search tool will locate hiking trails, complete with user reviews and difficulty ratings. For many people, hiking is a free and accessible form of sightseeing. "It's so cathartic being out in the woods in the early morning. And the drive home from a hike always makes me feel invigorated and happy," writes Redditor NotChristina.

Turn to exercise to help beat the blues

Anyone who's ever been depressed can attest that exercise is one of the first things well-meaning people suggest to them. It may feel tiresome to hear the same advice repeatedly, but exercise is one of the most valuable tools available and can be vital in beating seasonal depression. "Research has shown that consistent aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, which is associated with a reduced risk of depression," Dr. Eudene Harry tells Real Simple. The first step is often the hardest when setting new routines. If you have trouble sticking to a fitness plan, start small and begin with low-intensity workouts to avoid burning yourself out.

Walking around your neighborhood or local park can be a fantastic source of physical activity. But when inclement weather threatens outdoor workouts, you might want to look into joining a fitness center or creating a home gym using fitness tools. An easy way to incorporate more movement into your day is by using an under-desk fitness device, like the Cubii JR1. While it's not quite as intense as a standard-sized machine, the Cubii offers an elliptical workout without taking up much space. Whether you work from home or just need something to do while watching "The Real Housewives," a compact exercise machine can be the perfect tool to get your blood flowing.

Practice mindfulness consistently

Meditation is crucial to well-being, and it comes in many forms. You can practice mindfulness through various activities, from listening to guided meditations to daily journaling habits. An easy way to identify your ideal mindfulness routine is by trying different apps. Insight Timer is a comprehensive app that provides free and premium meditations for all and even offers a vibrant community where users can chat with one another. Another app, Youper, is more focused on mental health but includes mindfulness features like journaling, and it can even help users to nip negative thinking patterns in the bud. If you're not big on apps, you can always use a paper journal and try one of many guided meditations available on platforms such as YouTube.

One of the goals of mindfulness is to reduce judgment toward yourself and others. "Instead of looking outwardly of 'what I need' or 'what is out there in the world,' [it's] 'how can I find gratitude for where I am and what I currently have and what's currently in my world,'" yoga instructor Alison Simon tells the Los Angeles Times. Allowing yourself to focus on the present moment each day, even if only for a few minutes, can ground you when seasonal depression hits. For times when negative emotions just won't go away, try observing and making peace with them instead of letting them overwhelm you.

Try a vacation or staycation

Sometimes, the best thing to shake off glum thoughts is a vacation. After all, the prospect of spending all winter indoors is enough to give anyone cabin fever. Although your budget might not allow for a tropical getaway anytime soon, there are always opportunities to plan mini-vacations or staycations. It could be as simple as a day (or night) trip to an out-of-town restaurant you've been eyeing or a one-night stay at a local bed and breakfast or hotel for a change of scenery. If you're unsure of what there is to do in your area, try checking out Trip Advisor. And if your city is painfully dull, you can look at recommended sights in nearby towns.

Still not impressed by the local attractions? Another helpful site for exploring your state is Roadside America. Just pull up a map and start planning your road trip. And when it's too snowy outside to drive, consider booking a scenic train ride to your destination. The best tip for scoring inexpensive train tickets is to book early. Visit Amtrak to discover the places you can go, and make sure to ask for a quiet car when boarding if you like to nap. If you're looking for the cheapest hotel prices, or want to extend your day trip to an overnight one, consider Hotel Tonight. The savings can be even better on this app, and don't forget to check out its Daily Drop feature for the best deals available.

Spend time around pets or volunteer with animals

In case you were unaware, owning or spending time with animals may reduce your likelihood of experiencing depression. According to a study published in Animals, more than half of pet owners queried reported that owning a furry companion had reduced symptoms of depression. And it turns out that just sharing eye contact with your pet may be enough to boost your mood. "The positive interaction between humans and dogs via mutual gazing may reduce stress activity for each other,” postdoctorate fellow Miho Nagasawa tells The Washington Post. Nagasawa helped discover that dog owners produced more oxytocin after sharing glances with pups during playtime (via research published in the medical journal Hormones and Behavior).

Don't have access to pets at your place? No problem. You can bond with all types of animals through local volunteer opportunities. VolunteerMatch is a great resource to connect you with animals (or people) in need, and you can also research rescues or shelters in your area for more information. Plus, there are added benefits to helping out SAD sufferers; research featured in The Journal of Happiness Studies suggests that volunteering could have a positive impact on mental health.

Focus on improving your sleep set-up

The difference between a good night's rest and, well, a terrible one? Not only is it harder to function after shoddy sleep, but it also affects your mental health. Anxiety, depression, and insomnia — all features of seasonal depression — can cause a never-ending cycle of bad sleep and bad moods. If developing a restful sleep routine is difficult for you, you're not alone. "Patients with depression may not have the motivation to exercise regularly or cook healthy meals. Many also have trouble getting adequate sleep," Dr. John Frownfelter tells The New York Times.

Creating a healthy sleep environment might sound like work, but it doesn't have to be. The best way to establish any sort of routine is to find something you can stick to. For instance, while detaching yourself from your phone before bed is often advised, it might not be realistic, especially if you rely on it for a morning alarm. But instead of browsing reels until the wee hours, try something that promotes rest and de-emphasizes screen time, like listening to sleep meditations.

Another way to enhance the quality of your rest is by renovating your sleeping quarters. A heated or weighted blanket could make a world of difference during cold winter nights. The Sunbeam Royal Ultra Heated Blanket delivers warmth and coziness in five choices of colors and is even machine washable. Just be careful to monitor the heat settings if your feline or canine companion decides to bunk with you.

Include plenty of probiotics in your diet

Your gut health is closely linked to your brain health, so if your gut feels unhappy, your brain will probably not be too pleased. "The gut produces more than 90% of the body's serotonin," Dr. Avanish Aggarwal tells Forbes. Because of the close connection between the two, keeping your gut flora in check is vital to optimizing your mental health.

You've probably heard about probiotics, the helpful microorganisms found in everything from kefir to kimchi. By including probiotics in your diet, you may be supporting gut-brain health. A study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine has even indicated that probiotics could positively affect people displaying signs of depression and anxiety.

Eating probiotic-rich food is one of the easiest ways to balance gut bacteria. Still, you can also incorporate supplements to ensure you get a broad spectrum of probiotic strains and digestive enzymes. When it comes to probiotic supplementation, everyone responds differently. Refrigerated products, like Visbiome, are good if you're willing to spend, but there are also budget-friendly options. For a fraction of the price, you might want to try New Chapter All Flora, which offers a dynamic probiotic formula and has strong testimonials.

Flower essences can help ward off fears

The concept behind flower essences might sound a bit strange, but millions of people swear by them for everything from pre-flight anxiety to seasonal depression. According to the Bach Centre, flower essence remedies were pioneered in the 1920s by Dr. Edward Bach, who based each of the 38 remedies on individual emotions. Practitioners harvest flowers to prepare a tincture aimed at soothing negative emotions and thought processes. The remedies appear to have some merit, with researchers finding that flower essences may actually reduce anxiety symptoms in some individuals, according to a study published in Acta.

While many brands of flower essences are available these days, perhaps the most tried-and-true formula is Bach's Rescue Remedy. "I've used Rescue Remedy for over twenty years, and it's great for stress, shock, or anxiety," writes one reviewer. Because the original Bach formula is alcohol-based, some may find the taste unpleasant. Fortunately, the line has alternative products that provide the same benefits. Bach's Rescue Pastilles are another option to consider, and they supply stress relief in the form of delicately flavored blackcurrant lozenges. Though flower essences aren't meant to take the place of medication or other treatments, they can be an excellent addition to support overall well-being.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.