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Staying Active With Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

by Karen Ung

How to stay active with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), so you can feel better.

Hiking with friends is good for your body and mood!

It’s normal to feel a bit sluggish when the temperature drops and the days get shorter, but what if you keep spiraling down, down, down into a funk? If you feel more than blue, for more than a few days each fall, you could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This seasonal depression is more common in northern nations and affects “2-3% of Canadians… in their lifetime. Another 15% will experience a milder form of SAD.”1

My experience with SAD began four years ago after a year-long battle with postpartum depression. I was just feeling normal again when the seasons changed. I noticed a drastic change in my energy levels and was terrified that I was slipping back to “the dark side.” The first thing I noticed was not wanting to go out and do the things I usually enjoy. I made some lifestyle changes and was able to weather the winter without medication, but it wasn’t easy.

The steps I took to safeguard my emotional well-being required discipline to be effective. If I stuck with the program – slept well and exercised regularly – I was mostly ok. If I stayed up too late several nights in a row or didn’t exercise for a few days, I could feel my mood getting worse. The following tips are what helped me stay active with SAD, and I recommend using them in conjunction with conventional depression treatment (not as an alternative). Being active was the hardest thing to do, but what ultimately helped me the most.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and recommend you first seek the advice of your family doctor if you think you are suffering from SAD or depression. 

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How to stay active and feel better with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD):

  1. Exercise regularly.  Studies show that regular, moderate aerobic exercise is an effective treatment for depression2 (however please see a doctor before self-treating and seek emergency medical attention if you feel like hurting yourself)! Take up something you enjoy so you will stick with it. Going to weekly yoga with a friend helped me when my postpartum depression was at its worst. As I started feeling better, I increased the intensity of my physical activity. I feel best when I get that runner’s high a few times a week, and research indicates higher intensity exercise is more effective, but do what works for you! A fitness tracker can help you reach your goals by tracking your activity and reminding you to move every hour. If you don’t currently work out, ease into it to avoid injury.
  2. Exercise outdoors. Getting more sunlight can be helpful to sufferers of SAD. Morning sunlight is most intense, but if your schedule doesn’t allow for a morning walk, try getting out at lunchtime. Start a noon hour walking club, so you have company and something to look forward to.
  3. Set fun, attainable, active goals. Choose something fun you enjoy or have always wanted to do and commit to do it. If you like to run, signing up for a 5 km or 10 km race with a friend will motivate you to train. Start small to prevent undue stress and injury, then work up to longer distances. If you have always wanted to learn a new sport, do it now! For example, when you register for indoor climbing classes, they provide all the gear and training, so you don’t need to buy or bring anything. This year, I’ve signed up for a cross country ski race, so I will ski more often during the week. I’m excited to challenge myself to do the longest ski of my life! 
  4. Try light therapy. 60-80% of people with SAD are helped a lot by light therapy3. The key to success is finding the intensity of light that works best for you, and using the lamp at the same time every day when you first wake up. I like to use my Verilux HappyLight first thing in the morning while I do some stretches or in-place exercises (sit-ups, push ups, squats).  Start at a low setting and increase to tolerance (too high a setting may cause you to feel edgy). Some people may need to use the lamp all fall and winter, while others may benefit from a shorter duration of use. I use mine in early fall when the days get shorter, and usually don’t need it once ski season starts.
  5. Manage stress. Easier said than done; this goes hand in hand with managing time and priorities. That sink full of dishes can wait until tomorrow. If you need to go for a walk, GO! Gadgets that do chores for you, like the ROOMBA Robot Vacuum, can work while you walk. 😉 A pressure cooker can help you get dinner on the table faster if you don’t have time or energy to prep slow cooker meals in the morning.
  6. Establish a regular routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day and ensure you get the optimal amount of sleep.
  7. Ensure you get 8-9 hours of sleep a night. Getting too little or too much sleep can trigger depression, so aim for the amount that makes you feel refreshed. For most people, that amount is around 8 hours. Have trouble sleeping? Try a meditation app like Calm or Insight Timer.
  8. Eat a healthy diet. Limit processed foods as much as possible, drink plenty of water, and cut back on alcohol as it can make your mood worse. While it’s long been recommended that people reduce or eliminate caffeine for mental health, recent research shows that there is a lower rate of depression amongst women who drink 4 cups of coffee a day.4  Everyone is different though (2 cups is enough for me)! Listen to your body and try not to drink caffeine after noon as it can affect your sleep; optimal sleep is important to keeping depression at bay.
  9. Build a support network. If you don’t have a support network, join a group – walking club, outdoor club, parents’ group – and try to do something with them at least once a week. Surround yourself with positive people (and likewise avoid negative nancies), get lots of cuddles from loved ones, and be your own cheerleader. Instead of putting yourself down (something depressed people do a lot; I know from experience), give yourself a pat on the back when you do good. Making lists and crossing them off can be satisfying; celebrate the small wins!
  10. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. If you feel really down, please speak to your doctor. I know that it is hard to ask for help, but you CAN and will feel better! If you feel like you are a danger to yourself, please call 911 immediately. 

For more great tips, please see my friend Josee’s story “When Autumn Makes You Sad: 5 Proven Way to Conquer Seasonal Depression.”

Have you ever suffered from depression or seasonal affective disorder? What helped you?

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1, 3. Canadian Mental Health Association. (n.d.). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.cmha.bc.ca/get-informed/mental-health-information/sad

2. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. (2013, July 1). Is exercise a viable treatment for depression? Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3674785/

4. Borland, S. (2011, September 27). Coffee is good for you: Women who drink 4 or more cups a day are less likely to be depressed. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2042115/Women-drink-4-cups-coffee-day-likely-depressed.html

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Playoutsidegal February 21, 2016 - 5:22 AM

I'm glad for you! It isn't fun, but fortunately there are many ways to treat it!

Linda McGurk January 15, 2016 - 6:09 PM

Fortunately I haven't experienced SAD myself, but these sound like great tips!

Comments are closed.

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