Working With Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD

Managing Winter Symptoms

Working With Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD - Managing Winter Symptoms

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Get as much sunlight as possible during winter months to help combat SAD.

Many of us have had the "winter blues" at some point. Long, cold, endlessly gray days can affect even the most optimistic people at times.

However, some of us suffer from more serious symptoms at that time of year. During the winter months, some people may experience feelings of depression, lethargy and irritability, all of which usually improve when spring arrives.

This condition is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It's more serious than the typical "winter blues," and it's more common than you might think.

In this article, we'll look at what SAD is, and explore how you can manage its symptoms – so that you and your team can stay productive and experience greater wellbeing during winter.


This article is intended as a general guide only, and is not meant to replace medical advice or treatment. If you suffer from SAD, or suspect that you do, speak to a trained health care professional.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The Mayo Clinic defines SAD as a subtype of depression that is linked to the change in seasons. Symptoms typically start in the fall, build through the winter months, and often end with the arrival of spring. The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but many experts agree that the condition is linked to reduced hours of sunlight during winter.

One theory explores how sunlight stimulates the hypothalamus, the area of the brain that controls mood and sleep functions. In people who suffer from SAD, the lack of sunlight prevents this part of the brain from performing as it should. As a result, they might produce fewer mood- and sleep-related hormones, such as melatonin and serotonin.

Deficiency in vitamin D, which most people naturally get from their diet and especially sunlight, is also commonly thought to be a cause of SAD. But the evidence is not conclusive. In a 2014 Danish study, researchers found that vitamin D supplementation had an insignificant effect.

But vitamin D does play a part in the synthesis of both dopamine and serotonin, low levels of which are associated with depression. And a 2014 University of Georgia study concluded, "It is logical that there may be a relationship between low levels of vitamin D and depressive symptoms."

Although SAD can affect anyone, this landmark report found that it is far more prevalent in northern latitudes, and this study reports that the condition affects four times more women than men. SAD does affect people in the southern hemisphere as well, but it's very rare in people who live near the Equator – where daylight hours are long and consistent.

What Are Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms?

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), SAD sufferers can experience the following symptoms:

  • Hopelessness.
  • Increased appetite and weight gain.
  • Excessive sleeping.
  • Less energy and reduced ability to concentrate.
  • Loss of interest in work and other activities.
  • Sluggish movements.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Unhappiness and irritability.

Opinions differ on how many people are affected by SAD. For example, this study estimates that around 15.8 million people in the U.S. may suffer from it each year.

The Cleveland Clinic, however, estimates that half a million people in the U.S. may experience SAD, while a further 10 to 20 percent of the population could suffer from a milder form of "winter blues." The U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS) estimates that up to two million people in the U.K., and more than 12 million people in northern Europe, experience SAD each year.

How to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder

It can be difficult to live with the symptoms of SAD, and it can be even more challenging to stay upbeat and productive at work. However, there are several strategies you can use to manage your symptoms.

1. Use Light Therapy

Light therapy is one of the most effective ways to treat the symptoms of SAD. This involves exposure to high levels of intense light, emitted by a light box, for a set amount of time, typically 15-30 minutes every morning.

Some light boxes have to be prescribed by a health care provider, while you can buy others online. One study found that lamps with a dosage of 10,000 lux (a measure of illumination) can treat SAD effectively after one week of use.

The way that you wake up is also important. Each morning, you get a jolt of cortisol, known as the "cortisol awakening response" (CAR). It gives you a burst of energy and gets your brain functions into gear. You can harness CAR to optimize your performance during the day by waking early and at a regular time.

Waking gradually as daylight increases is the best way to boost your CAR. Light therapy devices, which produce the blue-tinted light that boosts CAR on dark mornings, can also help with this.

Any exposure to natural light, even when it's gray outside, can also help to alleviate your symptoms. So, make an effort to get outdoors as much as possible, even when you may not feel like it. Consider going for a walk during your lunch break, or taking up an outdoor winter hobby. Experiment with Walking Meetings.

2. Schedule Time for Regular Exercise

Getting more exercise has been shown to help alleviate the symptoms of SAD. It can also reduce stress, improve your mood, raise your IQ, increase your ability to learn and concentrate, and boost your energy levels.

So, aim to do more activities that get your blood pumping each day. Remember, exercise doesn't have to mean going to the gym. You could sign up for a dance class, go running or walking with a friend, or practice yoga.

Small changes like taking the stairs, cycling or walking to work, and parking farther away from your office can also make a big difference.

If you struggle to fit exercise into your busy schedule, consider getting up earlier to work out. Exercising early in the morning can also boost your metabolism, which has the benefit of burning more calories throughout the day.

3. Think Positive

We've all experienced how one negative thought, or a conflict with a colleague, for example, can spiral into a pattern of negativity that lasts throughout the day. SAD can exaggerate this negativity, and it can lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression.

To combat your negative thoughts, use Cognitive Restructuring strategies to change your thinking patterns, and use meditation and deep breathing exercises to manage your symptoms.

It can also help to practice mindfulness, which is when you slow down and make an effort to appreciate each moment as you live it. This simple technique can transform how you experience life. And it can also help you to feel grateful for the small things by encouraging you to appreciate everything around you.

4. Reach Out

When you're experiencing SAD, you might not feel like socializing after work or spending time with friends. However, interacting with other people can help boost your mood, reduce feelings of loneliness, and provide a distraction from the other symptoms of SAD.

So, reach out to family, friends and colleagues, and find some fun activities that you can do together.

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5. Eat Healthily

Diet can play a key role in helping you to manage the symptoms of SAD. For example, this 1993 study found that people in Iceland experience fewer cases of SAD than those on the east coast of the U.S. – despite being farther north and receiving less sunlight. This may be because their diet, which is high in fish containing a lot of Omega-3 fatty acids, reduces the occurrence of SAD.

So, consider introducing more fish to your diet, including oily varieties such as sardines, herring, tuna, or salmon. If you don't eat fish, you can consume more flaxseed, walnuts, beef, tofu, or brussels sprouts instead. It might also help to eat fewer carbohydrates and more fruits and vegetables.

How to Manage Team Members With SAD

As a manager, it's important to realize that SAD is a serious condition that can wreak havoc on people's lives. If one of your team experiences SAD symptoms, there are things that you can do to help them to cope, and to work more productively during the winter time.

1. Look at Your Work Environment

Natural light can greatly help to reduce the symptoms of SAD, so start by taking a look at your team member's workspace. Can you move their desk closer to a window, or another source of natural light? You could also encourage people to take breaks outside to get some fresh air and sunlight.

Next, make sure that they have a healthy workplace. Walk around the office – is the environment motivating and uplifting? Is it well-lit and inviting? Is it clean and adequately ventilated?

Consider brightening things up with paint, plants and inspiring artwork. And, depending on circumstances, consider providing a light box. These changes will help to boost energy levels right when your people need it most.

2. Provide Encouragement

Team members who suffer from SAD might find it hard to concentrate during the winter months, and you may notice that this affects the quality of their work and their productivity.

It's important to address any concerns you have directly with the person concerned, and to treat them with sensitivity and respect. Listen actively when they speak, be empathic about what they are going through, and be mindful of your tone and Body Language when you provide feedback.

Encourage them to follow the advice from the first section of this article, and sensitively suggest that they may benefit from visiting a health care professional if symptoms don't improve after a few weeks.

Key Points

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a subtype of depression that affects people during the winter months, and often disappears at the onset of spring.

Although the exact cause is unknown, many experts believe the condition is our body's reaction to reduced exposure to sunlight during winter.

To combat the symptoms of SAD, try using light therapy every day. Purchase a light box, or find ways to spend more time outdoors.

Make an effort to get more exercise, and to socialize more.

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Comments (15)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi atpstevens,
    Thanks for the feedback. Sorry to hear that you suffer from SAD and I hope you will use some of the suggested strategies. I also want to welcome you to the Mind Tools Club. It would be great to meet you in the Forums so come on over and introduce yourself. If you have any questions, just let us know and we will be happy to help.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago atpstevens wrote
    This is a great article. I've suffered from SAD for years now and have found it difficult to glean a plan to manage it better with so many conflicting studies. Thank you for writing such a clear article about the subject.
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi Amanda,

    I can empathize with you. I too live with SAD. The illness can have a debilitating effect on your daily activities and outlook if you don't intervene. Exercise, exposure to light, and taking vitamin D work for me, but for severe cases, medical help may be needed. The days are getting longer, Amanda. Spring is on its way :-)

    Mind Tools Team
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