Holbeck College

Surviving and Thriving Through Winter: A Guide To Seasonal Affective Disorder

Published 10 October 2023. Written by Alex Corcoran.

Winter landscape at sunrise

As the vibrant colours of autumn give way to the cool, grey hues of winter, many of us find ourselves reaching for cosy blankets and steaming cups of hot cocoa. While the change in seasons can bring a sense of nostalgia and joy for some, for others, it marks the onset of a more challenging time: the season of the winter blues.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), aptly abbreviated as SAD, is a condition that affects millions of people around the world. It's more than just a case of the "winter blues" or feeling a little down when the days get shorter; SAD is a recognised form of depression that follows a seasonal pattern, typically beginning in the autumn and persisting through the dark winter months.

In this article, we'll delve into the depths of Seasonal Affective Disorder, exploring its characteristics, causes, and prevalence. We'll also discuss the crucial importance of recognising its symptoms and seeking help when needed. But most importantly, we'll equip you with a toolkit of strategies and self-care practices to help you not just survive but thrive during the winter season.

So, if you've ever wondered why winter seems to cast a shadow on your mood, or if you're looking for ways to support a loved one who experiences SAD, join us as we shed light on overcoming the winter blues and discovering the path to a brighter, mentally healthier season ahead.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a recognised form of depression characterised by recurrent episodes of low mood that follow a seasonal pattern. While it can occur during any season, it most commonly emerges in the autumn and persists through the dark, winter months. SAD isn't merely a case of feeling a bit down due to the changing seasons; it's a distinct and often debilitating mental health condition.

Key Characteristics of SAD:

  1. Depressed Mood: Individuals with SAD often experience persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities they once enjoyed.
  2. Fatigue and Low Energy: Many SAD sufferers report increased feelings of tiredness and a noticeable decrease in their overall energy levels.
  3. Increased Sleep: A tendency to sleep more than usual, along with finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning, is a common symptom of SAD.
  4. Changes in Appetite and Weight: SAD can lead to changes in eating habits, with some people experiencing an increased appetite, especially for carbohydrates, leading to weight gain.
  5. Difficulty Concentrating: Concentration and focus often suffer in individuals with SAD, making it challenging to perform daily tasks or engage in work or study effectively.

It's important to note that these symptoms can vary in severity among individuals, and not everyone with SAD will experience all of them. However, recognising these signs is a crucial step towards seeking help and effective management.

In the following sections, we'll delve deeper into the causes of SAD and explore various strategies for its diagnosis, treatment, and self-care.

Risk factors

While Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can affect people from all walks of life, certain factors can increase an individual's vulnerability to developing this seasonal form of depression. Recognising these risk factors can be instrumental in understanding who may be more susceptible to SAD. Here are some key risk factors to consider:

Geographic Location and Latitude: SAD is more prevalent in regions farther from the equator, where daylight hours dramatically decrease during the winter months. In areas with long, dark winters, the risk of developing SAD is notably higher. For example, countries in northern Europe often report higher rates of SAD compared to those closer to the equator.

Family History: A family history of mood disorders, particularly SAD or clinical depression, can increase an individual's susceptibility to SAD. Genetic predispositions may play a role in making some people more prone to this condition.

Gender Differences: SAD is more commonly diagnosed in women than in men. While researchers continue to explore the reasons behind this gender disparity, hormonal and biological differences may contribute to the increased prevalence among women.

Age: Although SAD can affect individuals of all ages, it often first emerges in early adulthood. Young adults and middle-aged individuals are more likely to experience SAD than children or older adults.

Preexisting Mental Health Conditions: People who already have a history of depression or other mood disorders may be at a higher risk of developing SAD. The changing seasons can exacerbate existing mental health challenges.

Understanding these risk factors is essential because it allows individuals and healthcare professionals to identify those who may be more susceptible to SAD. However, it's important to emphasise that SAD is a treatable condition, and experiencing these risk factors doesn't mean that one is destined to develop the disorder. With proper awareness and early intervention, individuals at risk can learn to manage and cope with SAD effectively.

Treatment Options for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a treatable condition, and there are various effective approaches to managing its symptoms. The choice of treatment depends on the severity of your SAD and your individual preferences. Here are some common treatment options for SAD:

1. Light Therapy (Phototherapy):

How it works: Light therapy involves exposure to a special lightbox that emits bright, artificial light that simulates natural sunlight. This exposure is typically done daily in the morning, and the lightbox should have specific features, including a brightness of 10,000 lux or higher.

Effectiveness: Light therapy is one of the most effective treatments for SAD. It helps regulate the body's internal clock and can lead to a significant reduction in symptoms for many individuals.

Usage: Individuals can sit in front of the lightbox for about 20-30 minutes each morning during the autumn and winter months.

2. Psychotherapy (Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, or CBT):

How it works: CBT is a form of talk therapy that helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviours associated with SAD. It focuses on developing coping strategies and changing harmful thought processes.

Effectiveness: CBT has been shown to be effective in treating SAD by helping individuals develop skills to manage their symptoms.

3. Medication Options:

How it works: In some cases, healthcare providers may prescribe antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), to alleviate the symptoms of SAD.

Effectiveness: Antidepressants can be effective in reducing SAD symptoms, particularly for those with severe cases or when other treatments haven't provided sufficient relief. However, medication should be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

4. Lifestyle Changes and Self-Care:

How it works: Making certain lifestyle adjustments and engaging in self-care practices can complement formal treatments. These may include:

  • Regular Exercise: Physical activity can boost mood and energy levels, helping to combat SAD symptoms.
  • Maintaining a Regular Sleep Schedule: Ensuring you get enough quality sleep is essential for mental well-being.
  • Managing Stress: Stress reduction techniques, such as mindfulness and relaxation exercises, can be helpful.
  • Dietary Choices: Eating a balanced diet with an emphasis on whole foods can contribute to overall well-being.

5. Dawn Simulators:

How it works: Dawn simulators are devices that gradually increase the intensity of light in the morning to mimic a natural sunrise. They can be a gentler alternative to traditional light therapy.

6. Support Groups:

How it works: Joining a support group or seeking peer support from others who experience SAD can provide emotional assistance and coping strategies. The choice of treatment should be discussed with a healthcare professional who can help tailor a plan to your specific needs and preferences. It's important to note that SAD treatments often require consistency and may take some time to show full benefits, so be patient and persistent in your approach to managing this condition.

In the following sections, we'll explore self-care strategies and coping mechanisms that can be integrated into your daily routine to complement formal treatments and help you thrive during the winter months.

Self-Care Strategies

While professional treatments like light therapy, psychotherapy, and medications can be highly effective in alleviating the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), incorporating self-care strategies into your daily routine is equally essential. These strategies can help you take an active role in managing SAD and improving your overall well-being. Here are some self-care practices to consider:

1. Increase Exposure to Natural Light:

Daylight Exposure: Whenever possible, spend time outdoors during daylight hours. Even on cloudy days, natural light can have a positive impact on mood.

Open Curtains and Blinds: Keep curtains and blinds open during the day to let in as much natural light as possible at home or in your workplace.

2. Create a Light-Friendly Environment:

Use Lightboxes: If you're undergoing light therapy, ensure you use your lightbox consistently as prescribed by your healthcare provider.

Position Your Workspace: If you work from home, position your desk or workspace near a window to maximize exposure to natural light.

3. Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule:

Consistent Bedtime: Go to bed and wake up at the same times each day, even on weekends. A regular sleep schedule helps regulate your body's internal clock.

Darken Your Bedroom: Make your bedroom conducive to sleep by keeping it dark and cool. Consider blackout curtains to block out early morning light.

4. Engage in Regular Physical Activity:

Exercise Routine: Incorporate regular physical activity into your routine. Even a brisk walk or yoga session can help boost mood and reduce SAD symptoms.

Indoor Exercise: If outdoor activities are limited due to weather, consider joining a gym, taking fitness classes, or exercising at home.

5. Manage Stress Through Relaxation Techniques:

Mindfulness Meditation: Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help reduce stress and improve emotional well-being.

Deep Breathing Exercises: Deep, slow breaths can calm the nervous system and alleviate stress. Try deep breathing exercises when you're feeling anxious or tense.

6. Eat a Balanced Diet:

Nutrient-Rich Foods: Consume a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Avoid excessive caffeine and sugar intake.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3s found in fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts may have mood-boosting properties. Consider adding them to your diet.

7. Socialise and Seek Support:

Connect with Loved Ones: Maintain social connections with friends and family members. Spending time with loved ones can provide emotional support.

Support Groups: Consider joining a support group for individuals with SAD. Sharing experiences and coping strategies with others can be reassuring.

8. Pursue Enjoyable Activities:

Hobbies and Interests: Engage in hobbies and activities that bring you joy and a sense of accomplishment. Focusing on your passions can be uplifting.

9. Practice Gratitude:

Gratitude Journal: Keep a journal where you jot down things you're grateful for each day. Cultivating a sense of gratitude can positively impact your mood. Remember that self-care is a personal journey, and it may take time to find the strategies that work best for you. It's essential to be patient with yourself and seek professional guidance when needed. By combining self-care practices with treatment options, you can effectively manage SAD and improve your mental well-being during the winter months.


While winter may cast a shadow on our mood, it doesn't have to define our well-being. With the right knowledge, support, and self-care strategies, you can reclaim your sense of balance and brightness even during the darkest months.

SAD is a reminder that our mental health is intricately connected to the changing seasons and the environment around us. It's a reminder that it's okay to seek help when needed, to engage in self-compassion, and to nurture our mental well-being as we do our physical health.

By understanding the nature of SAD, recognising its symptoms, and actively participating in your own care through self-care practices, you empower yourself to rise above the winter blues. Remember to reach out for professional support when needed, lean on your support network, and practice patience as you navigate the ebb and flow of the seasons.

As the days grow shorter and the chill of winter settles in, know that you have the resilience and strength within you to overcome the winter blues and embrace the brighter, mentally healthier season ahead. May this knowledge guide you towards warmth, joy, and well-being, not just during World Mental Health Day but throughout the year.