Treating Depression Symptoms in Winter: Light Therapy, Melatonin, Talk Therapy, and More


While some people look forward to the brisk days of fall and winter, anticipating family dinners and cozy nights by the fire, others dread the cooler temperatures and shorter days.

If history repeats, they know that the winter season will bring, like clockwork, worsening depression treatment this year. “Ask your doctor if you need more medication or more talk therapy,” Rosenthal says.

Sometimes, increasing your antidepressant dose in early October, through March or so, helps, says Alan Gelenberg, MD, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

For some people with winter depression, getting more therapy during colder months can help, too, Gelenberg says. “If they do better coming in once or twice a week, fine,” he says. But “for a lot of people that’s not the case.”

Instead, he sometimes focuses during therapy on providing a patient a set of tools to use when mood declines. The goal: Help people with depression recognize when their mood is becoming low and take action by reaching out to friends.

Another useful depression strategy: do more “homework” between your formal therapy sessions, suggests Josephson. He advises patients to keep a mood log. Journals or logs help people identify moods and their reactions to situations. This understanding, in turn, helps people with depression evaluate and replace negative thoughts.

He also advises patients to stop “ruminating” — going over and over a perceived shortcoming in their mind. He cautions them to replace negative thoughts, such as “The party will be bad,” or “People think poorly of me” with more positive ones.

Beware If You Crave Sweets and Carbs

Craving carbohydrates — especially sweets — is a common symptom of SAD, Rosenthal says.

But the boost in energy you get form these simple carbs is temporary, and the extra sweets can mean you’ll put on weight. “I recommend a diet low in simple carbohydrates and high in complex carbohydrates [such as whole grain foods and starchy vegetables such as potatoes] and protein,” he says.

Minimize Exposure to Depressing News

Listening to the news 24-7 may depress your mood even more, says Gelenberg. It’s stressful, and minimizing stress can improve your mood, he says.

Ration your viewing of potentially bad news. He did that himself, Gelenberg says, after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. “One of the things I did was not watch or listen to the news after dinner,” he says. “I listened to news before dinner, I was very much keeping myself in the flow of information, but I needed a few hours in the evening to watch funny shows.”

Read biographies of famous and inspiring people, suggests Alexander Obolsky, MD, a Chicago psychiatrist and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Or go see movies about people overcoming adversity, he suggests. It will put life in perspective.

Reach Out and Keep Moving

Easier said than done, acknowledges Josephson. But he encourages his patients with winter depression to try both. “Reach out to others as much as you can,” he says. “Do it independently of how you feel. As the sneaker ad says, ‘Just do it.'”

“Mood is highly correlated with activity level,” says Josephson. “When people get depressed, they tend to withdraw and do less.” He encourages those with SAD to return to their previous level of physical activity. When they do, mood improves.

Any boost in activity will help, he says, even walking around the block or getting out to a ball game.