Yes, It’s Already Getting Darker Earlier — Here’s How to Avoid Seasonal Depression

You don’t have to be doomed to total hibernation this fall and winter.

woman looking out the window at the fall foliage

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As summer slowly slips into the rearview and pumpkin spice and spooky everything pervades your social media feeds, you've probably noticed that the days are already getting shorter and darker. (Read: Sunsets before 7 p.m.) While less sunlight certainly lends itself to that Hocus Pocus vibe some people crave all year round, it can also be a major bummer for anyone who grapples with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression marked by lower energy and moodiness that stems from the transition to fall and often continues well into the winter. 

It's marked by increased sleep and daytime drowsiness, a loss of interest in activities formerly enjoyed, social withdrawal, irritability and anxiety, fatigue, increased appetite, headaches, and even an ability to focus or concentrate. While the jury’s still out on the exact cause of SAD, it’s been potentially linked to reduced sunlight resulting in lower vitamin D (aka “the sunshine vitamin”), serotonin, and melatonin — all of which are involved in regulating sleep and mood. In other words, the very nature of the colder months puts people at risk of the condition.

“If you think about how your days look in the summer versus how they look in the winter, there’s less sunlight, less activity — we do less,” says Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University Langone Health in New York City. “A lot of people are used to going for a run or going out to dinner and sitting outside, but it’s hard when you’re working all day, and then your workday is over, and it’s dark already. It’s also less comfortable to be outside.”

Here are several expert-backed ways to preempt SAD this fall.

1. Get Outside

While it might feel less intuitive in the cooler months to meet up with a friend for a walk during your lunch break, dine al fresco, or go to that rooftop yoga class, finding ways to be out when the sun is out is a must. As Dana Udall, PhD, Headspace’s Chief Clinical Officer points out, “It's really important to maximize exposure to light in the fall and winter.”

This could be as simple as running to the post office or going for your run in the morning or midday versus waiting until after work. Udall recommends doing your best to be “most productive during the daytime.”

2. Focus on Sleep Hygiene

SAD can cause you to sleep less or more, depending on how you experience it, says Gallagher. And of course, either extreme can be problematic for your energy and well-being.

One of the best ways to get ahead of this is establishing regularity to promote good sleep hygiene, says Udall. To do this, consider: 

  • Setting a regular wake-up time. 
  • Establishing a solid bedtime routine that includes calming activities like reading or writing in a journal. 
  • Avoiding blue light from cell phones close to bed. 
  • Using a meditation app can help put your mind to bed with sleep sounds, music, and wind-downs with tension-releasing workouts or yoga.

3. Prioritize Pleasure 

When you’re low on energy after a long day at work, getting fired up to go to spin class can feel near impossible. That’s when you might consider leaning on behavioral activation, a core cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) method that Gallagher says practitioners use for depression.

“When people are depressed, they typically do less of what brings them pleasure and happiness, because they have less motivation, because they’re depressed, but then it continues, and there’s a downward spiral that begets more depression and more avoidance,” she explains. 

In turn, the goal is to do whatever has made you happy or brought you pleasure in the past, says Gallagher. And even if you don’t feel immediate joy, simply pushing forward on activities you enjoy will ultimately cause your mood to catch up.

4. Maintain Your Social Life

When it comes to getting together with friends when it’s colder and darker out, you have to make more of an effort, and especially when you’re not feeling great, that’s even harder, acknowledges Gallagher. But simply remembering the benefit of socializing could offer additional motivation.

“Know that it’s really worth your while,” she says. “We know social support and social interactions make us happier, so it’s even more important to put more energy into them. It doesn’t mean you can’t have any nights alone, snuggling up and watching a good show, but I think sometimes that can become more of the norm.” In turn, Gallagher recommends being “more intentional” with making social plans, which can stave off SAD. 

5. Rethink Your Diet 

Even small tweaks to what you’re putting on your plate can help you keep SAD at bay. Diana Savani, a registered dietitian, recommends prioritizing healthy fats like omega-3s and vitamin B12. “These two components of a healthy balanced diet have been shown to support a better mood and reduce feelings of depression,” she explains. 

You can find omega-3s in many foods including fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel, as well as walnuts, ground flaxseeds, and chia seeds, says Savani. Vitamin B12 is found in many protein foods, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. 

And in general, you’ll do best to aim for a well-rounded balanced diet that includes fruit, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and healthy fats to ensure the body is fully supported to get through the cooler, darker months feeling your best both physically and mentally, says Savani. 

6. Talk to a Therapist

Psychotherapy and opening up about your experience with a therapist can be an effective way to preempt or manage SAD, points out Veronica M. Wanzer, Ph.D., LCPC, an assisted professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Washington, D.C. “Remain as open and unashamed as possible,” she notes. “Speaking about your experience candidly with a mental health professional could lead to immense wellness.” 

What’s more, because the symptoms of SAD manifest differently for everyone, it's especially important to convey your specific experience of these symptoms, says Wanzer, so your therapist is better able to tailor support. 

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