How to Support a Friend or Family Member with Seasonal Affective Disorder

By: Cassie Finegan, MFTC

Learn how to support a friend or family member with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that most often affects individuals during the winter due to reduced hours of sunlight and shorter days. This can affect the production of melatonin, serotonin, and can disrupt one’s circadian rhythms which can lead to disruption of sleep, appetite, mood, sexual desire, and increased feelings of drowsiness and grogginess, and loss of interest in activities that typically bring you joy.

Combating Seasonal Depression

Let them know you’re there – Let your friend or loved one know that you’re there to support them, let them know you care and that it’s okay to talk about what they’re experiencing. Do your best not to be critical or blame them for how they’re feeling and recognize that they can’t “snap out of it”.

Natural Sunlight – When the winter days become shorter and contain less light, some people’s bodies will respond with increased melatonin production; the chemical that can make you more sleepy. To combat this, it’s important to encourage your friend or loved one to spend time outside when possible to get more natural sunlight to boost serotonin levels. This can look like taking walks on one’s lunch break, having morning coffee together outdoors on a patio or a walk, helping them rearrange their furniture to maximize sunlight exposure indoors (especially if your friend/loved one works from home, arranging their desk near a window could be very beneficial), and encouraging them to open their blinds and drapes to increase natural sunlight.

o Another great alternative is to offer them Bright Light Therapy, in which a person sits in front of a bright light simulator that mimics outside light if the weather conditions or one’s schedule inhibits them from getting outdoors.

Reduce Isolation – While your friend may be struggling to be as engaged or social as they once were, you can help them plan activities and encourage them to get out of their house. Despite their lack of motivation, you can work with them to be proactive by planning social activities when difficult days may be soon arriving. Some ideas might include joining an intramural sports team in your neighborhood, joining a book club, scheduling times with them to get lunch/dinner, visiting museums, getting outside to go skiing or hiking, or planning movie nights with friends.

Getting your loved one to get engaged socially can reduce the negative effects of increased isolation. This can also mean helping them explore new hobbies or leisure activities that you can do side-by-side which may require less social energy such as playing an instrument, painting, knitting, doing puzzles, cooking, baking, etc. (and incorporating a bright light lamp during this time may be doubly effective).

Encourage Routine and Schedule – If this is somebody you live with or see regularly, encouraging them to maintain a regular schedule for sleep and wakes times as well as regularly scheduled meals/snacks can improve their quality of sleep and alleviate symptoms of SAD. Keeping that regular schedule can also help by exposing them to light at regular and predictable times.

Balanced Diet – While cooking and baking together can be an activity to do together to reduce isolation, it can work towards helping establish meal/snack schedules as well as help introduce foods rich in Vitamin D into their diet. Research shows that individuals suffering from SAD show significantly lower levels of Vitamin D due to sun exposure and low dietary intake of Vitamin D, most often related to increased diets of simple carbohydrates during the winter when seeking ‘comfort foods’.

Vitamin D has been shown to improve immune functioning, lower blood pressure, and reduce symptoms of depression. Foods rich in Vitamin D include fish, egg yolks, yogurt, milk and milk products, cheese, and orange juice, Increasing the use of these foods in daily cooking and meals can help to reduce your friend’s/loved one’s symptoms related to their SAD.

Overall, let your friend know you’re there for them and care about their well-being and happiness. It may also be appropriate to encourage them to seek treatment from their primary care doctor or a therapist if their symptoms don’t improve and there is a noticeable shift in their presentation.

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