Tips for managing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

After many winters dealing with SAD, Tara Kergon offers her best hacks
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Close up photograph of an open wood fire in a grate

Winter means long dark mornings and even longer dark nights, and most people I know find their energy and motivation affected. But for those of us with SAD (seasonal affective disorder), the winter months can bring about a deepening depression.

Brought on by lack of natural light, SAD symptoms include stress/anxiety, loss of interest in activities, becoming less sociable, low self esteem, and feelings of dark despair to accompany the dark clouds above. You can also experience lethargy, difficulty concentrating, sleeping too much, and increased appetite, and all of these combined can make everyday life incredibly challenging.

It’s important to remember that this is not just a case of cold-weather blues – saying ‘cheer up’ isn’t going to suddenly snap us out of it. And someone who may have SAD should start by consulting their doctor because there are medical interventions available, including light therapy and anti-depressants.

In addition to that, and having struggled with SAD winter after winter for a while now, I’ve compiled some tried-and-tested tips and products to ease some of the symptoms and help manage the illness.

SAD tip 1: Let in some light

To quote Harry Potter, happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light – literally. Open the curtains and let in as much natural light as possible, but also use artificial sources since daylight hours are limited. Make things cosier with fairy lights and candles, keep your vitamin D topped up with supplements (one Spooniehacker contributor swears by this vegan spray used just twice a week), and invest in a daylight alarm clock.

Last winter I bought the Coulax Wake-up Light and was surprised what a difference it made. The sunrise alarm eases the challenge of getting out of bed by mimicking true daybreak with energising ‘daylight’ gradually streaming in half an hour before the alarm tone, while the lamp gives a little boost whenever it is switched on, improving my productivity through the day.

SAD tip 2: Light the fire

A fellow spoonie tells me that last winter was the best they’ve ever had in terms of their mental and physical health – and they attribute this to having access to an open fire in their home. Burning one in the evening or during a grey day creates light, warmth, and a comforting mood-lifting atmosphere.

If, however, you don’t have a usable fireplace there are alternatives, from fake fires to tricking your brain into thinking there’s a fire by filling a fireplace with red candles, or even maybe this fire bowl, which is on the Spooniehacker Christmas list.

If you can get outside, there are plenty of pubs/cafes with roaring fires. And you can even try crackling fire soundtracks/videos.

Some people also find saunas similarly beneficial (often available at council leisure centres), but for some chronic illnesses these are a no-no – so try whichever option works for you!

SAD tip 3: Arrange a wake-up call

If waking up and getting out of bed is part of the problem, then I recommend arranging a wake-up call from a loved one. This is especially useful if you don’t live with family, a partner, or a close friend who could physically wake you, as your loved one can phone until you pick up. If the struggle is waking up, due to intense fatigue or sleeping too much, try the daylight alarm with a call slightly later. If facing the day is overwhelming once you’ve woken up, that call can be a boost of positive encouragement to get up and out.

SAD tip 4: Fight the urge to isolate

Seasonal or not, depression leads to isolating yourself, and it’s important to remember that staying in bed (or inside) only feeds negative thoughts. Instead of hiding in a blanket burrito it helps to make more plans, and a change of location can disrupt the self-perpetuating cycle of depressed-and-incapable/incapable-and-depressed.

I find getting outside every day really helps, as long as there isn’t too much pressure to ‘do’ anything in particular. Make simple plans: visit a friend, have coffee dates, have company at yours if you can’t get out. Push yourself to stay out of a negative spiral, but work with the spoons you’ve got. Be depressed on the sofa instead. Be depressed in a café. Be depressed in the bath. What matters is that you’ve got up and out of bed.

SAD tip 5: Create a morning routine

Often the days feel big, overwhelming, and too complex, which makes it easier in the short-term to hide in bed. Something which really helps me get up and out (then face that day feeling less hopeless) is creating a doable, natural morning routine. The first 5-10 minutes of every single morning look the same for me – I brush my teeth, cleanse, shower, get into clean clothes, and drink my coffee – so that by maintaining the habit on good days I can just run on autopilot on bad days, making it as easy as possible to get up.

SAD tip 6: Get moving in a way that works for you

Countless (neurotypical) people have told me to ‘go running’ or ‘try yoga’ to ‘cure’ my depression, and it’s about as useful as saying ‘just cheer up’.

That said, lying in bed (or huddling in a chair) all day does nothing to wake me up or make me feel productive. But instead of classic, organised exercise, I’ve found getting up to take a big stretch, or a five-minute walk, is enough. Recently I’ve been using YouTube yoga classes to get moving in a meditative way. However simple, it’s important to break that cycle of simply sitting and stagnating in depression.

SAD tip 7: Curate your living space

Living in houseshares means my bed has frequently done triple duty as not only my ‘sleep zone’ but my ‘office’ and my ‘comfort corner’. While capitalising on small space, this makes it easier to spend all day in there. So it is vital to curate your living space to create one which works for your needs. I’ve ended up having different arrangements of pillows/cushions for working and for sleeping, using lap trays, and setting different lighting, all of which help change a room from ‘bedroom’ to ‘work room’ and keep me motivated instead of getting stuck.

SAD tip 8: Break down tasks

A lot of self-care talk (especially the aesthetic version described by neurotypicals) misses the point that sometimes looking after yourself means getting stuff done. Cups of tea and long restful baths are lovely – and absolutely necessary – but spending all day painting your nails won’t keep your life moving forward.

Whatever you need to do, whether it’s a basic life task, paid work, studies, or a personal project, avoid letting self-care shift into neglecting your responsibilities. Break things down into the smallest possible tasks, prioritise the most necessary, and take it one tiny bit at a time – then have that cup of tea.

SAD tip 9: Take advantage of the good days

Not every day with SAD is equally bleak or complex or overwhelming. As with most illnesses there are the bad days, but there are also the better ones – and on those good days it helps to take positive actions. It can be tempting to just enjoy feeling better, but taking advantage of the days when it is easier to do things can maintain a balance which means the bad days don’t have to derail everything. Make plans, get ahead on work, or just get all your laundry done, and you’ll keep moving forward even if tomorrow is a bad day. This can also keep the guilty feeling of ‘wasting time’ at bay – one that often comes with debilitating depression.

SAD tip 10: Be kind to yourself

Vital to disrupting the cycle of negativity is compassionate self-talk within self-care – without letting yourself get stuck in dark thoughts. Depression makes things seem overwhelming, and makes you avoid them. This is when it is most important to stop the ‘I can’t do this’ thought spirals, and replace them with: ‘It feels difficult, but I can do it’ or ‘today I need to take it easy, I’ll try again tomorrow’.

Remind yourself of positive progress (however small) instead of focusing on perceived failures or inaction. Talk to yourself, and take care of yourself, like your best friend, and use that positive, compassionate energy to keep going.

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Got any SAD tips? Please share in the comments!

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