Preparing Yourself for the Emotional Challenges of SAD and the Winter Months

white woman standing in forest looking out over a wooden bridge

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Key Takeaways

  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) often occurs during the winter months.
  • Symptoms of SAD include hopelessness, lower libido, and lethargy.
  • Being proactive early about preparing for winter can improve your mental health long-term.

Winter is coming. And while there may not be any "Game of Thrones" White Walkers on their way, it's still an ominous warning that seasonal affective disorder (SAD) lurks around the corner. The days are getting shorter and colder, while the leaves are falling and unwilling to sprout again until spring. Overall, it can feel bleak.

According to Mental Health America, about 5% of people experience seasonal depression a year. It may occur due to a reduction in serotonin and an increase in melatonin—both due to less sunlight. The odds of experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD) increase the further a person lives from the equator. Symptoms often mirror general depression, including lethargy, lower libido, and hopelessness. 

However, winter occupies three to five months of the year, depending on where you live. That’s one-fourth of your time, and it sucks to feel as if we’re spending every moment waiting for it to be over, counting down until the day sunset will once again occur after six.

If you’re not someone who is good at embracing winter sports or activities anywhere near to the fullest, the time can be even more depressing. There’s nothing we can do to change the essence of winter—other than moving to a warmer climate or heading to the southern hemisphere for the winter months. Yet, there are changes we can make around how we prepare for it and how it makes us feel. 

“Weather, schedule changes, social opportunities, and even aesthetics can affect one’s mood. There are some ways to plan ahead and combat the solemn feelings that may cause you to miss opportunities the seasons can offer,” says Dr. Taish Malone, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health.

“Many times, feelings of dread and outlook have the largest impact on how we experience things. Take time to be mindful of the positives that come with a change in weather, such as sweaters, snuggling, warm, soothing beverages, food, and all things hygge. There are a plethora of things that the changing season offers that may get overlooked because of a distorted view that overrides the good.”

Ready to fight back against SAD? Here are mental health professional-backed techniques for fortifying yourself in the winter months. 

Let The Sun Shine In 

Yes, the days are shorter, and sometimes the clouds are so thick it’s hard to know if the sun even exists. But there are also days when the sun bursts in through the windows and finds a way to radiate a warm glow, even in the dead of winter.

Taish Malone, PhD

Weather, schedule changes, social opportunities, and even aesthetics can affect one’s mood. There are some ways to plan ahead and combat the solemn feelings that may cause you to miss opportunities the seasons can offer.

— Taish Malone, PhD

On days like those (or honestly, even the gray days when it’s not entirely dark), make an effort to let the light in. “Sunlight can reduce fatigue, boost immune response, and promote better sleep and digestion, not to mention its encouragement of higher levels of dopamine, one of our happy hormones,” explains Malone. 

Use Light Therapy

Commonly referred to as a SAD lamp, light boxes are artificial light that can trick the brain into releasing mood-boosting chemicals. Malone recommends using it within an hour of waking up, but a provider can help you determine the amount of time to use it.  

Prioritize Scheduled Activities

When it’s cold and dark, motivation can be challenging to find. With that in mind, set definitive times to do activities and try to include others, so it’s harder to back out at the last minute.

“Engaging in recreational sports, meet-up groups, scheduled workouts, community meetings—whatever activities offer an outlet and source of joy in the warmer months of the year — is critical,” says Dr. Tynessa Franks, a clinical psychologist with her own private practice. “Do anything you can to prevent the change in sunlight during the winter from causing you to go into full hibernation mode.” 

Making definitive plans to see others can also help with another symptom of SAD and depression: hopelessness. “Seasonal affective disorder similarly causes people to want to withdraw and isolate — this behavior can exacerbate their symptoms,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Take Root Therapy. “By making an increased effort to connect with others and have meaningful experiences, even when they feel like they don’t want to, one might find that they have an easier time coping with the winter months.” 

Scheduling activities may also come in the form of planning a trip to somewhere sunny and warm, suggests Malone. 

Be Aware of Other Changes

In addition to the changes in the weather, the fall can also bring new schedules. As a parent, getting back into the school rhythm can be challenging and wear you down. The same is true for anyone suddenly inundated with holidays, says Malone. Be aware of these other factors when analyzing how you feel. 

When To Start Preparing For Winter

It’s never too early or late to pay attention to your mental health. “In clinical practice, we often see individuals start to experience symptoms in October when temperatures start to cool and the period of daylight gets noticeably shorter in many places,” says Franks. “Symptoms tend to intensify in November and continue through the winter months.” 

Tynessa Franks, PhD

Do anything you can to prevent the change in sunlight during the winter from causing you to go into full hibernation mode.

— Tynessa Franks, PhD

According to Lurie, conditions such as bipolar disorder may increase the likelihood of experiencing SAD. She suggests individuals with the disorder “maintain a healthy routine year-round to mitigate the impact of the change in seasons.”

When to See A Mental Health Professional 

It can always help to speak to a mental health professional leading up to or during the winter months. However, if you feel that your “everyday functioning is impaired,” Franks recommends finding someone to speak with as soon as possible. 

Malone further encourages individuals to seek professional care if the winter months mark difficult anniversaries of grief or trauma.

What This Means For You

The winter months are a challenging time and can make you feel very alone. Sharing how you feel with others and taking the time to connect can make a big difference in your well-being.