Self-Care for Seasonal Affective Disorder

The seasonal shift to the cold-weather months can feel complicated for many people. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, shorter, darker days can mean a dip in your mood that’s hard to shake. Further, if you manage seasonal affective disorder (SAD), this time of year can feel especially challenging. Unlike a mild case of the blues that you might easily remedy with your favorite film or Zoom visit with a friend, SAD can be much more complex to manage. Since you’re also juggling the effects of a global pandemic with the possibility of another shutdown soon, your strategies for support and self-care are especially important this year.


Also known as major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, SAD is most common in the winter months and typically resolves in the spring. The farther you live from the equator, the more likely it is that this type of depression might affect you at some point. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), about 5% of the U.S. population experiences SAD. Given that symptoms can last up to half of the year if left untreated, it’s important to think about ways that you can care for yourself deeply and well throughout the winter months.


What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?


SAD is most common in parts of the world where there’s little to no sun exposure during wintertime. This drop in daylight hours signals the brain to make more of the sleep-regulating hormone, melatonin. Too much melatonin can lead to SAD. The difference between SAD and major depression is the seasonal component — most people with SAD feel better in the spring. That said, there is a less common form of SAD that affects some people in the spring and summer months and resolves in the fall.


While researchers previously thought that SAD affects women more than men, current studies show that SAD can affect both men and women equally. While women’s symptoms may present as overt sadness, men with SAD may experience more irritability and anger. If you find yourself feeling edgy with a sadness that lingers as the winter months ensue, consider that you might need support, treatment, and an extra measure of self-care.


Hot Water Baths & Light Therapy Can Help


While not specifically targeted towards people with SAD, a small but promising study led by German researchers at the University of Freiburg recently showed that daily hot water baths helped alleviate symptoms in depressed participants. Not only were hot baths helpful for easing depression symptoms, they were even more effective than exercise alone. Warming, detoxifying, and balancing for both mind and body, a daily soak can help relieve muscle aches, calm your mind, and soothe your spirit.


Further, research has long shown that light therapy lamps can provide powerful relief from SAD symptoms. Bright-light therapy simulates the sun’s natural rays and can help lessen the production of SAD-inducing melatonin in the brain. Like hot water bathing, light boxes are most effective for relieving depression symptoms when used daily. While 20 to 30 minutes of bathtime is best before bed, experts recommend light therapy in the early daylight hours from 30 minutes to two hours for maximum benefit.


Self-care practices are an empowering way to take your wellness in your own hands. There’s so much you can do to show yourself some healing love this winter and beyond. Bathing, meditation, light therapy, good nutrition, and exercise can all help you feel calm, well, and balanced as the winter months approach. Additionally, online support groups and a trusted therapist can help provide much needed connection and support during challenging times. While self-care is essential, if you suspect that you might have SAD, don’t hesitate to reach out for the care that you need.

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