6 Tips to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder as a Nurse

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated July 6, 2023
    Seasonal affective disorder in nurses presents a challenge to professionals who spend their career caring for others. Consider these six tips to help reduce symptoms.
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    • Seasonal affective disorder affects millions of people each year.
    • Symptoms include fatigue, low mood, difficulty concentrating, and an increased appetite.
    • People most at risk are assigned female at birth, live far from the equator, and have a family history of seasonal affective disorder, bipolar disorder, or depression.

    Do you struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? Seasonal affective disorder can affect up to 9.7% of the population in mostly northern states. Symptoms include low energy, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and an increased appetite. Many people want to be alone; others crave carbohydrates.

    SAD is a condition that can affect all people in all age groups. Nurses and nursing students may find SAD particularly difficult as working long hours under stressful circumstances a nurse can contribute to and worsen the condition.

    Explore these six successful strategies to reduce the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

    How to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

    Symptoms of SAD center on low energy levels and a sad mood. Those most at risk are assigned female at birth, live far from the equator, and have a family history of depression, SAD, or bipolar disorder. However, even those without risk factors can develop the condition.

    Typically, the disorder produces symptoms in the winter months. It’s also sometimes called the “winter blues” or “seasonal depression.” We spoke with two nurses to discover the strategies they recommend to combat SAD.

    1. Recognize Your Body’s Cues

    Seasonal affective disorder typically begins and ends around the same time each year. After you’ve been diagnosed, you must watch for seasonal changes and your body’s cues. Symptoms usually begin in late fall and early winter as the days become shorter and the weather gets colder.

    In some cases, mood changes can become serious. SAD can affect how you think, feel, and handle daily activities. Symptoms often decrease during the spring and summer. Although millions can suffer, not all recognize they have the condition.

    Stephanie R. Hughes, MSN, APRN, is the regional director of nursing at Pinnacle Treatment Centers. She recommends paying attention to how you feel each day.

    “Know your body. Notice changes in your mood such as increased irritability, anxiety, feelings of loneliness, or poor concentration. You might notice you just feel different,” she says.

    Researchers and doctors are unsure of the underlying cause of SAD. Some research indicates there is a reduction in the neurotransmitter serotonin, known to help regulate mood. Other research suggests that people with SAD produce more melatonin than is needed.

    Melatonin helps regulate normal sleep cycles. Overproduction may lead to increased fatigue and sleepiness. Because the condition is cyclical and predictable, people with SAD have found benefit from beginning treatment before the fall months to help reduce the symptoms of depression.

    By recognizing your body’s cues and understanding how the condition affects you, you can take steps toward reducing symptoms and improving your winter outlook.

    2. Seek Out Natural Light in the Morning

    Hughes is familiar with treatment used to reduce the symptoms of SAD. For instance, it is crucial that you seek natural light. Since the 1980s, this has been a mainstay for the treatment of the condition.

    “Keep windows clear to let in natural sunlight. If unable to receive natural sunlight, keep rooms well-lit with artificial light. Avoid keeping your surroundings dark and gloomy,” she says.

    During the winter when the sun is not as bright, consider using a bright light box between 30-45 minutes each day. These boxes put out 10,000 lux and are roughly 20 times brighter than normal indoor light fixtures.

    The light boxes are sold specifically for the treatment of SAD. They are designed to filter out damaging ultraviolet light. However, if you have an eye disease or are taking medication that increases your sensitivity to light, you may need to use alternatives.

    Using light therapy first thing in the morning can offer the best results. In addition to increasing your exposure to light, it also shuts off your melatonin production. This can help improve your sleep quality and reduce sleepiness during the day.

    3. Maintain a Consistent Sleep-Wake Schedule

    Christine Kingsley, APRN, recognizes the need for self-care, specifically rest.

    “You must always honor your psychological need for rest,” she says, “as well as find the best ways to maximize the value of your time by utilizing it for improving your own well-being, before anything else.”

    There are steps you can take to experience quality rest. Although sleeping for 7-8 hours a night is crucial, the time you’re asleep should reduce fatigue.

    Set the tone for quality sleep. Turn off the television, don’t take work to bed with you, and avoid eating in your bedroom. There is also an optimal temperature for sleep that increases the potential for your rest to be actually restful.

    When you sleep too hot, sleep is more restless. You may have trouble falling or staying asleep. If the room is too cold, your breathing becomes constricted, placing additional pressure on the cardiovascular system.

    According to the Cleveland Clinic, the ideal temperature in the bedroom for adults is between 60°-67°F. This range may help facilitate rapid eye movement or REM sleep.

    4. Exercise

    Kingsley and Hughes recommend exercise as a way of combating the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Physical activity has demonstrated the ability to reduce symptoms of depression in the general population.

    One study of participants living in Alaska, found those who exercised at the gym experienced moderate improvement in the effects of SAD from both social interaction and physical activity. However, those who exercised independently experienced a greater reduction in symptoms.

    Researchers theorized that independent physical activity was more focused on the activity as compared to those who socialized during exercise. Exercise is known to release endorphins, which are hormones that increase your feelings of well-being and reduce pain. Exercise also can help support your metabolism and improve your energy levels.

    5. Practice Mindfulness

    Hughes recommends staying mindful while experiencing symptoms of SAD. “Practicing relaxation techniques, reflection, and meditation are all good practices for us,” she says.

    Although practicing mindfulness and meditation for nurses can help reduce symptoms, some have found that individuals with SAD are naturally less mindful during the winter months.

    Make mindfulness a habit by incorporating the practice into your routine. Use your time outside to stay in touch with how your body feels. Consider using a mindfulness app that can guide you through meditation.

    6. Check Your Vitamin D Level

    The National Institute of Mental Health suggests that deficits in vitamin D levels may worsen problems with melatonin and serotonin. These two hormones help regulate your body’s daily sleep-wake cycles.

    Since there is less sun during winter, your body produces less vitamin D when exposed to the sunlight. Before taking supplements, consider getting your vitamin D level measured first.

    This will help determine the amount of vitamin D supplement you may need each day. Grassroots Health Nutrient Research Institute has an online vitamin D calculator that helps you identify the amount of daily supplement you need to reach the desired level.

    If you choose to take a vitamin D3 supplement, it’s recommended to take it in combination with vitamin K2 MK-7. Vitamin D3 increases calcium absorption from food. Vitamin K2 helps move that calcium into your bones and teeth where it belongs. Supplementing with vitamin D3 without vitamin K2 can increase microcalcification in the arterial system.

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Stephanie R. Hughes, MSN, APRN

    Stephanie R. Hughes, MSN, APRN

    Stephanie R. Hughes is the regional director of nursing at Pinnacle Treatment Centers. Hughes has nearly 25 years of nursing experience in a variety of healthcare settings. Hughes earned her MSN from Walden University with a focus on management and leadership followed by a family nurse practitioner postmaster’s from Frontier Nursing University. She is board certified in family practice through the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board.

    Portrait of Christine Kingsley, APRN

    Christine Kingsley, APRN

    Christine Kingsley is an advanced practice registered nurse with experience treating patients with various lung diseases and helping them reach and maintain healthy lifestyles. As the health and wellness director at the Lung Institute, Kingsley advocates for holistic care, including traditional and alternative treatments while focusing on diet and exercise.