It’s like clockwork, because it is clockwork: As soon as we set our clocks to fall back in November, we’ve unrolled the welcome mat for seasonal affective disorder. And, it doesn’t just feel this way. Scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark have done the research to back it up. They looked at nearly 200,000 cases of depression from 1995 to 2012 and found not only did people get more depressed in the winter, they specifically got more depressed the month after they changed their clocks.

Sounds counterintuitive? It’s called daylight savings after all. But the problem is where those daylight hours get added—in the early morning when no one is really paying attention. You’re busy getting ready for work or still sleeping. By the time 4:30 rolls around, it’s already starting to get dark again. And that has a lot to do with why seasonal affective disorder (SAD) comes crashing down on millions of Americans, especially those who live in the northern latitudes where the days are even shorter, right about now.

How Do You Know You Have SAD?

These symptoms tend to come on with the transition into winter and then throughout the cold season itself:

  • Low energy
  • Sluggishness
  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Sleepiness
  • Weight gain
  • Feeling down or depressed

 And, while for years, experts have extolled the virtues of light therapy for the three percent of Americans suffering from SAD, new research is showing that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) may do us just as much good in keeping seasonal depression at bay.

How Does CBT Work for SAD?

During CBT sessions, you’ll learn to develop an awareness of automatic thoughts, see a situation from a different perspective and identify problems more clearly. Ultimately, the goal of CBT is to work on changing thought patterns and behavior.

“The most important thing about CBT is that it is gives patients a set of skills that they can learn and implement later,” says Carol Landau, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island. “With CBT you can problem-solve, and most studies suggest that people can keep those skills with them and remember them later.”

This means starting early. “In September you can start thinking that the days are getting shorter,” Landau says. “You can then begin identifying small steps you can take to feel better in the coming months when the days darker and colder.”

At the same time, other studies have shown that both light therapy and CBT are equally important modalities to have in place if you have SAD. The main difference is bright light therapy is considered by some experts to be more of a treatment protocol than a preventative measure.

Bright light therapy may also be difficult for some people and can prompt a variety of health complications in those who have underlying health issues like migraines, eye diseases or, even, those who are taking certain medications.

“From my work with patients, I’ve found that you actually get more benefit by doing a combination of both therapies,” says Michelle Drerup, PsyD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Drerup says one of the most effective things you can do is change your mindset about the season. “I had one patient who decided she would learn to ski one winter,” she says. “She wanted to give winter a different meaning. It was a wonderful decision since it gave her the opportunity to stay active, be in nature on even the coldest days and it gave her something really exciting to look forward to.”

How To Cope With SAD? 

  • Stay active. When there is some sun in the sky, take a walk in the sunlight for at least 30 minutes per day. To keep releasing those feel-good endorphins, indoor exercise is just as good of an option. Sign up for a yoga class or go for a swim at your local pool.
  • Buy a personal light therapy lamp. Use it for 30 minutes first thing in the morning and consider keeping one on your desk at work, especially if you work in a dark environment without much natural light.
  • Keep in touch with friends and family. Regular movie night or book club to keep connected with loved ones, especially during the winter months that can be particularly isolating.
  • Stay up to date on your vitamin D. Get tested before winter begins to make sure you’re not low on vitamin D. Consider adding more vitamin-D rich foods to your diet such as fatty fish, egg yolks and fortified cereal.
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Last Updated: Aug 17, 2020