What can I do to help myself?
Many people with SAD notice that their symptoms of depression are seasonal and develop self-help strategies that allow them to manage the condition themselves, either on their own or with other treatment. Here are some suggestions that might be helpful.
Make the most of natural light
We know that being outdoors throughout the winter does not cure SAD, because people who work outdoors also experience SAD symptoms. However, it is still worth taking opportunities to be exposed to natural light when possible. Going outdoors, particularly during midday or on bright days, can be effective in reducing symptoms. It might also help to wear sunglasses less often to allow greater exposure to natural light (only if it is safe and comfortable to do so). Having pale colours within the home that reflect light from outside can also be helpful.
People are more likely to suffer from stress in winter. If you find this time of year difficult, try to plan ahead to reduce the amount of stressful or difficult activities you have during this time. Plan stressful events for summer where possible, particularly major ones, such as changing jobs, moving home, doing repairs, or having a baby.
Take advantage of times when you feel well in the summer to prepare for the winter, such as by buying Christmas presents or stocking up your kitchen cupboards in summer. If you can, make more spare time to rest, relax or do pleasant activities in the winter. Perhaps pamper yourself physically with a massage, or learn a relaxation technique to help you unwind.
“I find keeping warm makes me feel better. I go to the gym – I do a short work out, around fifteen minutes and then sit in the sauna. Ten minutes in there and a nice shower and I feel a lot better.”
Exercise and eat well
Try to keep physically active during the winter. While it may not feel like it at the time, physical activity can be very effective in lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels. It does not have to be anything particularly strenuous. It can be as simple as doing housework, gardening or going for a walk. Doing something physical outdoors, in a green space such as the park or the countryside, has been shown to be especially helpful.
A healthy diet is also important, and you should try to balance the common SAD craving for carbohydrates, such as pasta and potatoes, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Some people find that taking extra vitamin B12 is helpful.
Visit somewhere with more light
If you can afford it, a holiday to a sunnier climate is likely to reduce symptoms, but you may find that upon returning home your experience of SAD will temporarily become much worse. It seems that the contrast in light levels can do more harm than good sometimes, so check with your doctor before going away if you have any doubts.
Consider using a light box
Using a light box has been found to be an effective treatment for SAD, as it increases your exposure to light during the winter months. Light boxes are at least ten times the intensity of household lights. They are available in different strengths and sizes. For an individual diagnosed with SAD, a strength of at least 2,500 lux is recommended. You can also get light boxes as visors.
People benefit from using a light box in different ways. Many people find that it is useful to use one every day, but it is best to experiment to find a routine that works for you. The average use is one or two hours a day during darker months and the maximum is about four hours. Some light boxes are much brighter and can cut treatment time down to half an hour. You can use your light box at any time of day, although it is best not to use it before you go to bed, as the effect of the light may make it hard to sleep
Occasionally, people report side effects from using a light box, such as headaches, irritability or, in very rare cases, nausea. Changing your position may help, but if problems persist, you should stop using it. If you use a light box regularly, you should tell your optician and make sure you have an annual eye check-up. If you have existing eye problems, you should check with your optician that light boxes are safe for you to use.
Improve your support network
Think about joining a support group. Sharing your experience with others who know what it is like can be very therapeutic. Many support groups for depression will have members who experience SAD or find that they feel worse at certain times of the year. Your family doctor or local Mind should be able to advise you about groups that may be suitable for you in your area.
Knowing that you are not alone, and that help is available, can make SAD easier to cope with. Get as much support as possible from your family and friends. Tell them about the condition, so they know what to expect and how to help. If your family doctor does not know about SAD, you can get more information from the organisations listed in ‘Useful contacts’.