7 Ways to Ease Seasonal Depression

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called seasonal depression, is a mental health condition in which symptoms occur at the same time each year. SAD affects about 0.5% to 3% of the general population, but is higher in those with major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.

Typically, SAD symptoms appear or worsen in the fall and winter months, and subside in the spring and summer months. For about 10% of people with SAD, symptoms occur in the spring and summer months instead.

In the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), SAD is classified as major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, rather than a stand-alone condition.

Symptoms can range from milder (known as subsyndromal, or "winter blues") to severe enough to greatly impair functioning.

SAD is best treated under the care of a healthcare provider or mental health professional, but in addition to professional treatment, there are ways to help alleviate SAD symptoms at home.

A young man works at his desk, using a light therapy lamp.

Santiago Urquijo / Getty Images

Symptoms of Seasonal Depression

Symptoms of SAD can vary depending on which season it occurs.

SAD falls under the general umbrella of major depressive disorder (MDD), which has symptoms including:

  • Feeling persistently "down" or depressed
  • Loss of interest in once enjoyed activities
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Sleep changes/difficulties
  • Changes in appetite/weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Experiencing low energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Help Is Available

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Symptoms specific to winter-pattern SAD may include:

  • Hypersomnia (sleeping a lot)
  • Increased appetite (particularly a craving for carbohydrates)
  • Social withdrawal

Symptoms specific to summer-pattern SAD may include:

  • Insomnia (difficultly sleeping)
  • Decreased appetite, often leading to weight loss
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Episodes of violent behavior

What Are Some Risk Factors for Seasonal Depression?

Researchers have identified some potential risk factors for SAD, including:

  • Age: SAD usually begins between ages 18 and 30
  • Gender: While men often experience more severe symptoms, SAD is three times more common in women
  • Family History: Thirteen to 17% of people with SAD have an immediate family member who also has/had SAD. Twenty-five to 67% of people with SAD have relatives who have/had other mood or psychological disorders, such as major depressive disorder or schizophrenia
  • Other Mental Health Conditions: SAD affects 10% to 20% of people with major depressive disorder, and approximately 25% of people with bipolar disorder. Other mental health disorders are common in people with SAD, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, an eating disorder, an anxiety disorder, or panic disorder


Home Remedies for Seasonal Depression

Symptoms of SAD typically improve on their own when the seasons change, but treatment can make symptoms more manageable and improve more quickly.

Professional treatment for SAD often includes medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and/or therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

If symptoms are milder, SAD may be effectively managed with home treatments. Home treatments can also be used along with professional treatments.

Light Therapy

Light therapy is a commonly recommended treatment for winter-pattern SAD.

Light therapy uses a very bright artificial lightbox (10,000 lux). Sessions typically involve sitting in front of the box for 30 to 45 minutes each day. Sessions are usually done first thing in the morning, and are practiced from fall to spring.

Some improvement is usually seen within a week or two of starting regular sessions.

Research varies in how effective light therapy has been shown to be, but several suggest it may be comparable in effectiveness to CBT.

Lightboxes for light therapy can be bought over-the-counter, but it's a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before using one as they are not right for everyone, including:

  • People with certain eye diseases
  • People taking certain medications that increase sensitivity to sunlight
  • People with certain skin problems
  • People who experience manic episodes with bipolar disorder (light therapy can trigger a manic episode)

Increased Exposure to Sunlight

For some people, spending more time in the sun can help counteract the diminished daylight in the winter and help improve SAD symptoms.

This can be done by engaging in outdoor activities like going for a walk, skating on an outdoor rink, or even just sitting outside.

Allowing more light inside your living and/or working space can also help. Try:

  • Sitting near a window as much as you can
  • Rearranging your space to maximize the light coming in
  • Opening curtains and blinds
  • Trimming tree branches or moving objects that block light from coming in

Remember that exposure to UV light can be damaging, even in the winter. Speak with your healthcare provider about how much sunlight it is safe for you to be exposed to.

Vitamin D

People with SAD often have a vitamin D deficiency, especially in the winter with less daylight. Problems with vitamin D levels may hinder the activity of serotonin (a mood-boosting neurotransmitter hormone) and worsen SAD symptoms. Vitamin D supplements may help improve SAD symptoms in people who have a deficiency, but studies show mixed results.

Eat Well

Winter SAD can cause carbohydrate cravings and increased appetite. Summer SAD can decrease appetite which sometimes leads to unintended weight loss.

In both cases, being mindful of overall eating habits and making sure you are getting a wide variety of healthy foods can help. Try incorporating proteins, vegetables, unprocessed foods, and complex carbohydrates into your meals.

Exercise

Physical exercise can be energizing and stress relieving. Outdoor exercising, such as taking walks, can help work your body and get sunlight exposure. Try getting outside for some fresh air and exercise around noon when the sun is high.

Getting into the habit of regular exercise before your SAD symptoms appear may help with motivation when winter hits.

Try to Sleep Well

This is a tough one since disruptions of sleep due to changes in your circadian rhythm (the sleep-wake cycle, which is affected by light) is one of the major symptoms of both winter and summer SAD.

People with winter SAD may find themselves sleeping too much, while people with summer SAD may find it hard to get enough sleep.

Some people find it helps to get on a schedule in which they wake up and go to bed at the same times each day.

A dawn simulator, also called a sunrise alarm clock, is a device that gradually increases the amount of light in the room in the morning. It mimics the slow brightening of a natural sunrise over a span of about 30 to 45 minutes. This means that if you need to wake up before the real sunrise, instead of awakening in a dark room followed by bright light, you can feel like you have woken with the sun naturally. This can help adjust your circadian rhythm, which may improve your symptoms.

Take a Vacation

This is not an accessible remedy for everyone, but if you can swing it, taking a trip to a place with a warmer, sunnier climate can give you a bit of a summer oasis during the winter blahs.

This is not a lasting solution. Unless you stay there for the entire fall and winter, symptoms will return when you get home—but it's a nice break.

Why Does Seasonal Depression Happen?

While the exact causes are unknown, seasonal depression is linked to changes in sunlight—too little in the winter, and too much in the summer, depending on what the individual is sensitive to.

Changes in sunlight affect the circadian rhythm, which in turn affects mood, sleep, and behavior.

Self-Care Tips for Seasonal Depression

While not "treatments", some things to try that may help you feel better when you are experiencing SAD include:

  • Paint your walls lighter, brighter colors during the winter
  • Stay connected to others, whether that means meeting for coffee with a friend, calling a loved one, joining a support group, or any other way you feel comfortable reaching out
  • Reduce stress as much as you can by recognizing and addressing stress triggers, doing mediation and mindfulness exercises, getting creative, doing fun activities, or other healthy stressbusters
  • Avoid alcohol and illicit drugs as these can make you feel worse in the long run
  • Set realistic goals, breaking large tasks into smaller ones, and prioritizing so you don't take on too much
  • Try to be patient—even with treatment, it can take time for symptoms to get better
  • Don't hesitate to see your healthcare provider. It's not always possible to manage SAD on your own, and getting help can make a big difference

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, see your healthcare provider. They can help determine an accurate diagnosis and work with you to find a treatment that works for you.

Summary

SAD often requires professional treatment, but if symptoms are mild, they may be managed with home-treatment. These treatments can also help as complementary treatments to ones provided by healthcare providers.

Some treatments for SAD that can be done at home include:

  • Light therapy and spending time in sunlight
  • Lifestyle habits such as a healthy diet, exercise, and quality sleep
  • Vitamin D supplements if there is a deficiency

A Word From Verywell

As its acronym suggests, SAD can be unpleasant and difficult to experience. Fortunately, in addition to effective professional treatments such as antidepressants like SSRIs and therapy, like CBT, there are ways to help manage SAD symptoms at home. If you experiencing symptoms of SAD, see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis and treatment options.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you help someone with seasonal depression?

    You can help by learning about SAD to better understand what they are experiencing. Encourage them to get help if needed, and support them in their treatment plan. Don't underestimate the importance of just being there to listen, either.

  • When does seasonal depression start?

    SAD can start at any time, but typically starts in the fall or winter.

  • What causes seasonal depression?

    The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but changes in sunlight and circadian rhythms are believed to play a large role.

  • When is seasonal depression at its worst?

    SAD usually occurs in the fall and winter. In the United States, January and February tend to be the most difficult months for people with SAD.

Was this page helpful?
11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Seasonal affective disorder.

  2. American Psychiatric Association. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

  3. Melrose S. Seasonal affective disorder: an overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depress Res Treat. 2015:178564. doi:10.1155/2015/178564

  4. National Institute of Mental Health. Seasonal affective disorder.

  5. HelpGuide. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

  6. Centre For Addiction and Mental Health. You’ve heard of the winter blues but what about summer depression?

  7. Meyerhoff J, Young MA, Rohan KJ. Patterns of depressive symptom remission during the treatment of seasonal affective disorder with cognitive-behavioral therapy or light therapyDepress Anxiety. 2018;35(5):457-467. doi:10.1002/da.22739

  8. Rohan KJ, Meyerhoff J, Ho SY, Evans M, Postolache TT, Vacek PM. Outcomes one and two winters following cognitive-behavioral therapy or light therapy for seasonal affective disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2016;173(3):244-251. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15060773

  9. Rohan KJ, Mahon JN, Evans M, et al. Randomized trial of cognitive-behavioral therapy versus light therapy for seasonal affective disorder: acute outcomes.Am J Psychiatry. 2015;172(9):862-869. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.14101293

  10. Canadian Mental Health Association. Seasonal affective disorder.

  11. Johns Hopkins. Seasonal affective disorder.