The urge to stay cozy inside during the winter months is natural, but for some, the desire not to leave the house when the weather shifts goes beyond a craving for resting up with hot tea and holiday movie marathons: Seasonal winter depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), can result in "sluggishness, fatigue, and social withdrawal," says Dr. Matthew V. Rudorfer of the National Institute of Mental Health—plus an increase in sleep and weight gain and a general feeling of "hibernation."
Getty / Betsie Van der Meer
"Seeing a doctor is a wise first step if you think you have seasonal depression, or any kind of depression for that matter," says Dr. Rudorfer. Your physician will take a more in-depth survey of your symptoms, looking for episodes that occur repeatedly in the winter and vanish in the spring; confirm that another metal health disorder—like anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder—isn't the cause; and check for physical reasons you might feel tired and withdrawn, like cc. Since diagnosis requires a recurrence every winter, it will take at least two years to confirm that the depression is seasonal—but that doesn't mean you can't start managing it immediately.
Get enough light.
"Ever since SAD was first studied seriously in the early 1980s, the mainstay of treatment has been bright light," explains Dr. Rudorfer. Patients sit in front of a light box each morning for a set amount of time—usually ten minutes at first, increasing to as long as an hour as the days get shorter. "This remains the best evidence-based intervention based on the theory that the driving force behind seasonal depression is the reduction in the number of daylight hours in the winter," he says. "An effective light box delivers 10,000 lux of full-spectrum white light, filtering out potentially-risky ultraviolet rays, which is meant to approximate being outdoors on a sunny springtime day."
Stick to your routine.
The primary symptoms of seasonal depression can be fought, in part, by "doubling down on maintaining your usual routine," says Dr. Rudorfer, who cites a healthy diet, consistent sleep schedule, and habitual exercise as key priorities—along with "engaging in activities you usually enjoy with family and friends, even if your first impulse is to decline invitations," he says. Set aside time to get outside as much as possible, too, even in the cold weather: "It is important to expose yourself to as much natural daylight as possible, ideally spending time outdoors every day," says Dr. Rudorfer. "The point is to work against the natural tendency of those with SAD to 'hibernate' in a dark place for the winter."
Make adjustments at work.
If your company offers the opportunity to adjust your schedule or work from home, take advantage of those perks; they can make it easier to get the recommended amount of light therapy, spend time outside during the day, and sleep in without having to face an early-morning commute in darkness. If working from home isn't an option, Dr. Rudorfer suggests requesting a desk near a window, going outside on your breaks, and bringing a portable light box to your desk. And though your work environment may make it difficult to soak up the daylight you need, it does have other benefits: "Take advantage of days working with colleagues to stay connected with your workmates," he says. "Walk down the hall to speak to someone in person rather than send an email, plan to eat lunch with a colleague, and whenever possible, accept invitations for after-work activities."
Try to prevent it.
Though Dr. Rudorfer says there are no foolproof way to prevent seasonal depression before you get it, a few techniques have shown promise, including a modified cognitive behavioral therapy specific to SAD; long-acting prescription medication; and the use of a light box starting before (not after!) symptoms appear. If your lifestyle allows it, says Dr. Rudofer, abandoning winter entirely may also help. "The 9% prevalence of SAD in New England or Alaska drops as one moves south, falling to 1% in Florida," he says. "Those who can afford to do so can find relief from seasonal depression by spending as much of the winter in southern locations as possible."