What causes seasonal depression, exactly?
Seasonal depression can affect 0.5 to 3 percent of the population in the US, according to the National Library of Medicine. (NLM). SAD tends to affect people with existing mental health issues at higher rates, with an incidence of 10 to 20 percent in people with major depressive disorder and 25 percent for people with bipolar disorder.
While the cause of SAD isn’t entirely understood, the NLM states that contributing factors like reduced levels of sunlight, a disruption in the sleep-wake cycle (also known as your circadian rhythm), and even genetics may play a role. Of course, if you do have SAD, it’s a good idea to talk with your health provider about your specific treatment plan first, but there are some habits to consider that could help ease your symptoms this season.
Packing the start of your day with mood-boosting, mental-health-protecting practices can potentially help you feel better as winter approaches.—Serenity Serseción, PhD, Licensed Psychologist at LevelUpPsych
5 seasonal depression tips to work into your morning routine
You might want to consider making slight adjustments to your routine now before the darker days start getting to you. Pro tip: Take advantage of the part of your day that you can (mostly) rely on for those coveted rays of sunlight—the morning. Packing the start of your day with mood-boosting, mental-health-protecting practices can potentially help you feel better as winter approaches, says Serenity Serseción, PhD, Licensed Psychologist, practicing at LevelUpPsych in Sunnyvale, CA. Just note that not all of these tips will work for everyone. You may have to do some trial and error, in addition to talking with your mental health provider, if you can, to find the right tweaks for you.
1. Wake up at the same time every day (including weekends)
A common symptom of SAD is a change in sleep quality and quantity—either sleeping more or less. That’s why Dr. Sersecíon recommends sticking to a scheduled bedtime and wake time that doesn’t waver. This can give your mind and body a routine it can trust—and potentially protect you against SAD-related changes involving the sleep-wake cycle. This can also help curb oversleeping and napping, which could be sapping the quality of your nighttime rest, according to the Mayo Clinic.
2. Wake up with natural light or simulated natural light
Since the lack of light in the winter months can contribute to SAD, it’s important to soak it up as much as possible. Dr. Sersecíon recommends priming your morning wakeup with bright sunlight from an open window or a sunlight-simulating lamp. This type of lamp mimics natural light and has been shown to alter brain chemicals related to mood (more on best practices later). Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to rise when the sun does, just make sure to get some much-needed light within an hour of waking up, according to the Mayo Clinic. This can look like keeping your curtains open for the morning or swapping your black-out curtains with sheer shades.
3. Get active in a way that works for you
In addition to waking up with sunlight, Dr. Sersecíon says getting active is a huge way to defend against SAD. Exercise is excellent for the body and brain, in part, because it releases a lot of feel-good chemicals, like dopamine, epinephrine, and serotonin, that can boost your mood. Whether you prefer to get out for a run in the morning or stick to your lunchtime walk, keeping it consistent is important. As the days get grey and your will to exercise wanes, it’ll be easier to get up and move if the activity is already ingrained in your routine. You can also sign up for a fitness class or plan workouts with a friend in the evening to avoid the slump that comes with early sunsets. Perhaps the best part about adding movement into your day to help protect against SAD? You don’t have to do super intense exercise—a daily 10 to 15-minute walk can be really beneficial for your mind, says Dr. Sersecíon.
4. Eat a nutrient-packed breakfast as often as you can
Eating meals that are balanced and full of protein, vitamins, fats, and carbs is a very important practice to maintain your overall well-being. So, when it comes to your first meal of the day, fueling up with nutrient-dense foods can help regulate your mood and energy levels throughout the day, says Dr. Sersecíon. That way, when SAD symptoms hit, you won’t also be wrestling with low blood sugar levels or full-on hanger rage that completely wrecks your mood. Again, having a routine down is really helpful when the going gets tough, so it’s important to have a few go-to balanced breakfasts in your back pocket for when SAD season is in full swing.
5. Use a SAD lamp 30 minutes daily as early as September
Light therapy isn’t as easy as turning on your desk lamp for a few minutes, but when done correctly can be really effective for people with SAD. For one, you’ll want to make sure your lamp is SAD-certified and provides 10,000 lux of light. Then, it’s a good idea to brush up on best practices when using your lamp—like sitting 16 to 24 inches from the light for 30 minutes daily, preferably at the same time.
You’ll also want to start ASAP. Dr. Sersecíon recommends getting into the habit as soon as you can in the fall. It might feel like a useless strategy if you’re not in the thick of your SAD spell until, say, mid-February, but that’s the whole point. The slow decrease in sunlight is part of what causes SAD, so using light therapy as a preventative measure is actually super important.
What to remember when utilizing these seasonal depression tips
At the end of the day, it can be really frustrating to simply have four to five fewer hours of sunlight every day, particularly when it has such a big impact on your mental health. If these seasonal depression tips don’t help—Dr. Sersecíon recommends touching base with a trusted provider about other steps you can take, like supplementing vitamin D, talking to a therapist, or taking medications. 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.