As the air turns crisp and the leaves begin to show brilliant shades of orange and yellow, you may be getting excited about the upcoming hot season – we’re talking endless soup recipes, hot cups of tea, and snuggling up under a blanket. fluffy predictably. future. But for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called seasonal depression, shorter, colder, darker days can creep in and wreak havoc on mental health and well-being. That’s because SAD is a type of depression that tends to strike around the same time each year, usually when there’s less sunlight (but not always), according to the Mayo Clinic. The good news is that there are some tips for seasonal depression, particularly tweaks to your morning routine, that can potentially improve your mood, even when it’s dark outside.
What exactly causes seasonal depression?
According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), seasonal depression affects 0.5 to 3% of the US population. People who already have mental health problems are more likely to be affected. People with a major depressive disorder are affected 10–20% of the time, and people with bipolar disorder are affected 25% of the time.
Even though no one knows for sure what causes SAD, the NLM says that things like less sunlight, problems with the sleep-wake cycle (also called the circadian rhythm), and even genetics may play a role. Of course, if you have SAD, it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider first about your specific treatment plan, but there are a few habits to consider that might help ease your symptoms this season.
Preparing the start of the day with practices that improve mood and protect mental health can help you feel better as winter approaches.—Serenity Serseción, PhD, licensed psychologist at LevelUpPsych
5 tips for seasonal depression that you can include in your morning routine
You may want to consider making small adjustments to your routine now before the darker days start to affect you. Pro Tip: Take advantage of the part of your day you can (mostly) rely on for those coveted rays of sunshine: the morning. Preparing for the start of the day with practices that boost mood and protect mental health can help you feel better as winter approaches, he says. Serenity Sersetion, Ph.D., is a Licensed Psychologist who works at Level Up Psychiatry in Sunnyvale, California. Just keep in mind that not all of these tips will work for everyone. You may need to do some trial and error, as well as talk with your mental health provider if you can, to find the right settings for you.
1. Wake up at the same time every day (including weekends)
A common symptom of SAD is a change in the quality and quantity of sleep, either sleeping more or less. That’s why Dr. Sersection recommends sticking to a set time for going to bed and waking up. This can give her mind and body a routine she can trust, and potentially protect against SAD-related changes that involve the sleep-wake cycle. The Mayo Clinic says that this can also help you stop oversleeping and taking naps, which can hurt the quality of your sleep at night.
2. Wake up to natural light or simulated natural light
Since lack of light in the winter months can contribute to SAD, it’s important to absorb as much of it as possible. Dr. Sersecon recommends preparing for your morning awakening with bright sunlight from an open window or a lamp that simulates sunlight. This type of lamp mimics natural light and has been shown to alter mood-related brain chemicals (more on best practices below). Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to get up when the sun does—just make sure you’re getting some much-needed light within an hour of waking up, according to the Mayo Clinic. This may look like keeping the curtains open in the morning or swapping blackout curtains for sheer curtains.
3. Stay active in a way that works for you
In addition to waking up to the sunlight, Dr. Sersecon says that staying active is a great way to defend against SAD. Exercise is great for your body and brain, in part because it releases a host of feel-good chemicals like dopamine, epinephrine, and serotonin, which can improve your mood. Whether you prefer to go for a run in the morning or keep walking at lunchtime, it’s important to stay consistent. As the days turn gray and your desire to exercise dwindles, it will be easier to get up and move if the activity is already ingrained into your routine. You can also sign up for a fitness class or plan workouts with a friend in the evening to avoid the blues that come with early sunsets. Perhaps the best part of adding movement to your day is that it helps protect against SAD. You don’t have to do super-intense exercise—a daily 10- to 15-minute walk can actually be beneficial for your mind, says Dr. Sersecon.
4. Eat a Nutrient-Packed Breakfast as Often as You Can
Eating meals that are well-balanced and full of proteins, vitamins, fats, and carbs is a very important thing to do for your overall health. So, when it comes to your first meal of the day, eating nutrient-rich foods can help regulate your mood and energy levels throughout the day, says Dr. Sersecon. That way, when SAD symptoms strike, you won’t have to deal with low blood sugar or total anger that completely ruins your mood. Again, having a set routine really comes in handy when the going gets tough, so it’s important to have some balanced breakfasts in your back pocket for when the SAD season is in full swing.
5. Wear a SAD lamp 30 minutes daily starting in September
Light therapy isn’t as easy as turning on your desk lamp for a few minutes, but when done correctly, it can be very effective for people with SAD. For one thing, you’ll want to make sure your lamp is SAD-certified and provides 10,000 lux of light. So it’s a good idea to review best practices when using your lamp, such as sitting 16 to 24 inches away from the light for 30 minutes a day, preferably at the same time.
You’ll also want to get started as soon as possible. Dr. Sersection recommends getting into the habit as early as possible in the fall. It might seem like a pointless strategy if he’s not in the middle of his SAD spell until, say, mid-February, but that’s the point. The slow decline in sunlight is part of what causes SAD, so using light therapy as a preventative measure is really very important.
What to remember when using these tips for seasonal depression
At the end of the day, it can be really frustrating to simply have four or five fewer hours of sunlight every day, especially when it has such a big impact on your mental health. If these tips for seasonal depression don’t help, Dr. Sersecon recommends contacting a trusted provider about other steps you can take, such as supplementing vitamin D, talking to a therapist, or taking medication. Living with seasonal depression can be a struggle, but there are ways to make the winter months a little more bearable and, hopefully, even enjoyable.