23 Effective Ways to Beat Seasonal Depression
Fight seasonal depression with these expert-backed tips and tricks.
Approximately half a million Americans deal with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the winter, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And on top of that, another 10 to 20 percent of the population is coping with a more mild case of the winter blues. Yes, those dreary winter months have a negative effect on our mood—and if left untreated, that can lead to serious consequences. "SAD can affect your life in great degrees. Life becomes less enjoyable and ineffective," explains Norman Rosenthal, MD, author of Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder. "It can also lessen your capacity to think clearly and make good decisions." But the silver lining is that SAD is very treatable. Here are 23 things you can do to beat seasonal depression ASAP.
Stick to a normal sleep schedule.
People with SAD often sleep in more than usual or find it difficult to get up in the morning because of the darker a.m. hours. But to beat seasonal depression, it's so important to follow a regular and healthy sleep schedule during the winter months.
So how can you do that? "Reducing blue light exposure up to two hours before bed in the evening can make a difference in keeping your circadian rhythm strong and helping you sleep better through the night," notes David J. Austern, PsyD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.
Wake up with a dawn simulator.
It's hard to be a morning person when the moon is still up by the time you have to roll out of bed. Enter: light alarm clocks, also known as sunrise alarm clocks. These devices mimic sunlight and gradually become brighter to naturally lure you out of slumber. And unlike regular alarm clocks, which use jarring sounds to wake you up, light alarm clocks use nature calls or soothing music to ease you out of sleep. The light "can come through the eyelids and trick your brain into thinking it's summer," says Rosenthal.
Use a light box.
If you're looking for some brightness at any other point during the day, turn to light box therapy, which treats SAD by providing artificial light that imitates sunlight. "Light therapy is a fundamental treatment for SAD because it is when light is at its lowest that people suffer," Rosenthal says. "Days are short and dark, so replacing what is missing can replace medicine. It's very effective and can reverse symptoms in a reliable and effective way."
Because light boxes are not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), you should consult your doctor about what to look for when shopping for one. There are many devices out there that claim to be light boxesbut actually aren't. Your doctor can also advise you as to how much time you should spend using the light box and at what points during the day it's most beneficial to use it.
Go for walks outside while the sun is out.
Of course, actual sunlight is great for coping with seasonal depression, but walking can provide a mood boost, too; with every step you take, you pump more oxygen to your brain and release serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating your mood.
"Going for a walk is a wonderful way to get exercise plus light," Rosenthal says. "People are hesitant to go outside because it's cold, but that shouldn't deter you from getting some fresh air."
Keep up a regular exercise routine.
Sticking to your fitness regimen is especially important during the winter months, not just for your physical health, but in terms of beating seasonal depression as well. "We know that exercise is helpful for mood, anxiety, and depression," explains Austern. "If people have a consistent exercise routine, it can be really helpful for treating SAD."
Taking group fitness classes is also a great way to connect with people and avoid feeling lonely and isolated.
Take a yoga class.
It's true: You can downward dog your way to less stress and more happiness. According to a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, practicing yoga and meditation can help relieve stress and enhance positive feelings about your well-being. Some research has also shown that doing yoga can help improve depression symptoms.
There are many different styles of yoga, so sign up for a class that you think will best fit your needs, interests, and skill level. If you're not sure what suits you, visit a local yoga studio and have them guide you through their class offerings.
Manage your stress levels with aromatherapy.
If you're dealing with seasonal depression, it's pivotal to carve out time for some self-care. Take a relaxing bath in the evening, meditate before bed, and definitely enjoy some aromatherapy with essential oils. Rosenthal says that orange and lemon scents can make you feel more energized, and some research—like this 2017 study published in The Mental Health Clinician—also shows that lavender essential oils can have a calming effect on anxious individuals.
Relax with a spa day.
It's time you book that facial or massage you've been eyeing. Visiting a spa can help relieve stress and anxiety, sending you to a serene place mentally, even if it's brutally cold outside. One 2010 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry even concluded that massage therapy can help with depressive symptoms. So splurging on a 60-minute massage session can be well worth the mood-boosting benefits.
Brighten your rooms with light colors.
Another way to make the colder months a little bit brighter is by decorating your home with lightly colored furniture, throw pillows, rugs, and flowers. If you're willing to make some major changes, Rosenthal says that painting your walls white or in light, neutral tones can help reflect light and naturally brighten your space, therefore combatting your seasonal depression.
Hang mirrors to reflect light.
This is another easy way to fight seasonal depression while having the added benefit of upgrading your home's aesthetic appeal. Fill the dark corners of your home with mirrors to reflect light coming through the windows, which will brighten up your space.
Infuse some hygge into your home.
Hygge, the Danish art of getting cozy, is all about embracing staying in and appreciating the warmth winter provides. And considering that in the 2019 World Happiness Report, Finland, Norway, and Denmark were listed as some of the happiest places in the world, we could all use a little hygge in our lives if we're feeling down when the weather outside is frightful. Lighting some candles, slipping on some fuzzy socks, and sharing a meal with friends are all recipes for hygge-ing your heart out and boosting your mood.
Enjoy a night out with friends.
Being social is key when it comes to trying to beat seasonal depression. "When people are feeling depressed, they don't feel engaged with the world. They feel isolated and opt out of things that they can be doing to feel good," Austern says. Instead, try to break the pattern of disengaging from the world by going to a party, scheduling a date night with your partner, or hosting a dinner with friends—you'll be surprised how much a little socializing can help uplift your mood.
Listen to upbeat music.
Simply busting out your favorite mood-boosting playlist can help you combat seasonal depression. In a 2011 study published in PLOS One, researchers found that listening to upbeat music can change the way we perceive the world, making us seek out the positive rather than the negative.
Read a good book.
Cozying up with an interesting book can also help get your mind off of any negative thoughts. Immersing yourself in a page-turner can be a winter day well-spent indoors.
And if reading doesn't do the trick, a 2017 study published in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy also found that coloring and doodling can be beneficial for improving mood.
Try a new winter sport.
If you've been itching to go ice skating or skiing this winter but haven't pulled the trigger, now's the perfect time to hit the rink or the slopes. Winter sports will help you get more fresh air, sunlight exposure, exercise, and social interaction—a winning formula for feeling better.
Treat yourself to a new outfit.
Sometimes wearing a new sweater is all it takes to feel good. Wearing something you like and feel good in can spark confidence, so if you've been eyeing an article of clothing, don't feel guilty splurging a little to feel a whole lot better.
See a funny movie.
There's no better way to perk up on a dreary day than with a good movie. And even if you're feeling down, consider seeing a comedy. One 2017 study published in the Journal of Leisure Research found that 20 minutes of laughing was just as effective at boosting mood as a 20-minute aerobics workout. In fact, the giggle session was even better at alleviating anxiety symptoms than the workout!
Plan a weekend getaway in nature.
A weekend escape to a cozy cabin or bed and breakfast can also help you fight seasonal depression. Only have one day to get away? Plan a hike through the woods to enjoy the majestic sights and sounds of nature. One 2019 paper published in the International Journal of Biometeorology notes that forest bathing—which involves taking long, deep breaths in the woods—can significantly reduce stress by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels.
Or take a sunny vacation.
Escape the gloomy weather that's causing your seasonal depression by taking a mini jaunt to a warmer, sunnier place. Feeling some sun on your skin and enjoying time away from life's stresses can recharge your spirit and help you feel more relaxed and rejuvenated. One 2010 study published in Applied Research in Quality of Life even shows that merely looking forward to a vacation can lift your spirits!
Stick to your goals.
Setting specific goals and creating concrete plans for achieving them can also help you beat seasonal depression. In one 2019 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, researchers found that people with major depression benefitted from motivational interventions and learning how to have a positive outlook about the future. Easier said than done, right? The first step is to write down a list of things you want to achieve in the coming weeks, months, or even years, and then you can start identifying what you can do to achieve each goal.
Volunteer your time.
You'd be surprised how much helping others in need can help your seasonal depression. Check out your local soup kitchen or animal shelter for volunteering opportunities. If there's a charity or cause out there that has special meaning to you, reach out to the organizers to find out what you can do to help. This circles back to what Rosenthal and Austern emphasized earlier about the importance of staying social and engaged with society.
If you feel like you could use more support combating your seasonal depression, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you adjust both your thinking and your behavior in order to feel better. "When people think negatively about themselves, the world, and the environment, all of these negative thoughts trigger negative feelings," Austern explains.
Rosenthal adds that in addition, "SAD is linked to behavior. So if you lie in bed in the morning with your head covered, then you're not going to get the morning light." And that can only make your seasonal depression worse.
Talk to your doctor about taking antidepressants.
Once you're diagnosed with SAD, your doctor may prescribe antidepressants to help treat it. "If depression is at a mild level, psychotherapy without medication might be OK. But if severe depression is there, antidepressants are the frontline treatment," Rosenthal says. Going on medication—even if it's only for a short period of time—can help balance your hormone levels and get your mood back on track.