Do you dread the leaves turning color? When you hear it’s going to reach only 50 degrees today, do you inwardly wince and yearn for warmer weather? Does your energy get zapped as the daylight wanes, and getting out of bed becomes increasingly difficult?

If this rings familiar to you, perhaps you may be experiencing what some people term SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. Several studies on SAD show that women may experience down times during winter months more than men, and that people who are living somewhere where they didn’t grow up often have more trouble with the disorder.

Traditional thinking has been that the lower your exposure to light, the more likely you’ll experience depression. However a recent study debunks that whole idea. Even though the researchers set out to find how having more or less light affected SAD, they couldn’t find any proof if its existence.

Instead, the CDC survey revealed no evidence for seasonal affective disorder. The researchers were wary of overlooking SAD trends among the huge non-SAD population, so they reanalyzed answers from a subset of people who classified as depressed at the time of the survey. Still no sign of SAD. No seasonal or light-dependent increases appeared in the depression measures. We might wonder if something was wrong with the study, but other well-established trends appeared in the survey data, such as higher rates of depression for women and the unemployed. The fluctuation in depression from SAD was either nonexistent or undetectable.”

Whether it can be statistically proven or not, whether it has something to do with the holiday season occurring during the winter, or whether it’s about how close you are to the sun, if it’s in your experience — then that’s what matters.

Most of us can’t afford winter homes or vacations to Tahiti. So what do you do?

Five things to do if you struggle with seasonal depression..

1) Try “light therapy.”

Try exposure to artificial light via a special box that emits therapeutic light; this is believed to affect someone’s circadian rhythm and increase melatonin which is important in the sleep-wake cycle. Another small but impressive study showed that light therapy was very effective, especially when compared with a group who believed they were getting the same treatment but were not (what’s called a “placebo” group). This is exciting news if you don’t want to take medications or you’ve failed medication treatment.

If you look on Amazon for light boxes, you’ll find several different varieties, ranging from around $40 to over $200. The Mayo Clinic advises that you check especially with your eye doctor before choosing this route.

2) Get some exercise.

I can’t stress enough the benefits of exercise for depression. Many people struggle with fitting it into their schedules, but when you do, it can make a huge difference in your mood and energy level. Yes, you have to get up earlier. Or yes, you have to budget for a gym membership. And yes, you might have to dig deep for that motivation.

But it’s more than worth it; exercise has been shown to be as effective as other kinds of treatment. And the only side effect is you feeling stronger and better! As a bonus it can be free (even if have to get inventive and work out at home with pets and kids climbing on you) and it’s available 24/7.

3) Confront your “shoulds.

Marie Kondo has written a New York Times best-seller about cleaning out your home. She suggests “thanking” the things that have meant something to you, or have helped you in some way, but strongly recommends keeping only the things that bring you joy in the present. Whether or not you think this idea is a little much, the popularity of the book suggests that people are yearning for simpler, more meaningful experiences.

If you tend to over-do, over-plan or over-schedule, that habit can become worse during the holidays. Ask yourself, “Am I doing this because it brings my joy, because I’ve always done it, because others expect it, or because I think I should do it?

If you tend to get depressed from being overwhelmed, it may be an incredibly important question to ask. If you’re exhausted or sleep-deprived, you can easily become down and your thinking can become negative.

4) Practice letting go of shame.

The beginning of a new year is a time many of us assess where we’ve been, and where we’re going — what goals did we meet last year, and what are the directions we’d like to move in the next?

If you focus solely on what didn’t happen this year — the twenty pounds you didn’t lose, the exercise you didn’t get, the vacation with the kids you didn’t take — and let that disappointment be your entire focus, those thoughts can easily lead to shame or bitterness. What is much more helpful is to be compassionate with yourself and try to understand what undermined your goals.

A question I recommend, when your thoughts are turning toward beating yourself over the head, ask, “Is what I’m feeling helpful in this moment? Is it serving a positive purpose?” If not, distract yourself. Stop obsessing over it. Turn your mind around to something else.

5) Recognize what grief you have, and allow yourself to feel it.

When the holidays come with the stress on family and connection, and you’ve experienced actual loss or trauma during that year, the sadness you feel can be real. Not “the blues,” but a deep sense of loss. You don’t have to pretend not to feel it.

I heard someone say, who’d lost a family member that year, “I don’t want to be a drag to anyone. I’m afraid I’ll cry or not be able to be a part of things.” My response was to give her a hug, and remind her how she would feel if someone else was in her spot.

My own parents died right before Christmas of 2007. I remember well how tough it was. It was important to allow myself to feel whatever I was feeling. And allow others to help me.

Please give yourself the same permission.


You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.

And there’s a new way to send me a message! You can record by clicking below and ask your question or make a comment. You’ll have 90 seconds to do so and that time goes quickly. By recording, you’re giving SelfWork (and me) permission to use your voice on the podcast. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

Image courtesy of Pexels.

Originally published on November 5, 2017; updated and republished on October 30, 2022.

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