As the days get shorter, it gets dark out early (we’re talking before you leave work work early) and the moon is probably still out even when you wake up. In short, that can be depressing. It’s so easy not to feel like yourself if you don’t want to get out of bed, head outside, or even venture out to see friends in the evening. (Who wants to bundle up that much?)
If you’re feeling abnormally sluggish, sleepy, and antisocial, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that comes on during the winter months and is four times more likely to affect women than men. While the sadness usually lifts in spring and summer (though not always), you don’t have to suffer until it gets warmer—you can seek help now.
Here are five things that can make you feel better.
There’s nothing wrong if you feel like you need to seek psychiatric therapy in the form of medication. In a double-blind study in 2012, people with SAD either got light therapy and placebo meds or placebo light therapy with an antidepressant called fluoxetine over eight weeks. The results? Both treatments were effective, but the Rx group had the benefit that the cost of the treatment in the first year was cheaper. (A savings of about $75.)
That said, as the authors point out, because SAD often comes back season after season (yeah, we know…), the light box can be used for about five years, making it more cost-effective in the long-run. Talk to your doctor about what option is right for you; it may be that combining meds and light therapy is the answer.
Talking to a professional can go a long way to give you the tools and skills lift a low mood during the winter on your own. In one randomized controlled trial in The American Journal of Psychiatry, adults with SAD were either assigned to take six weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy specifically designed for SAD (which shows you how to reprogram self-defeating thinking patterns and behaviors) with light therapy. Those in the CBT-SAD group saw their mood improve just as much as those in light therapy, the researchers concluded. The plus is that both are considered effective natural treatments for SAD if your goal is to seek non-med therapies.
If you live in a Northern climate, chances are you’re not getting enough vitamin D during the winter. (The sunshine vitamin is produced when your skin is exposed to the sun, as well as by eating D-rich foods like salmon and fortified milk.) People with SAD and depression have been found to run low in D. The catch: Research hasn’t shown consistently that taking D can cure SAD. However, it’s worth it to ask your doctor if you should get a simple blood test to check your D levels and ask if you could benefit from a supplement. After all, D is important for more than just peppiness—it plays an important role in bone health, too.
One surefire way to combat SAD is getting more light into your life, which can regulate your circadian rhythms to reverse mood symptoms. That may be through natural means (sitting by the window eating breakfast or lunch) or getting outside for a brief walk (even though it may be cold). Another method is using a light therapy box—ideally one that exposes you to 10,000 lux of non-UV light. Mood can improve when you sit near it for a half hour per day within the first hour you wake up, according to the Mayo Clinic.
You know how good you feel after a kickass session at the gym? Or how a few-mile run can make everything feel better? That benefit isn’t imagined—it’s the real deal. In a Cochrane Review that looked at nearly 30 trials, researchers found that sweating out your worries may be on par with psychological therapy or medication. Even when it’s cold and dark out (and you’d rather binge on Netflix), finding a way to build some (any!) movement in your day can go a long way to feeling more like you again.
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work. People are almost three times more likely to be dependent on tanning if they have SAD, but that comes with a big risk—skin cancer. People who tan on the regular are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma, notes the Skin Cancer Foundation. Their advice is to seek out safe sources of light, instead.