The Reason Pleasure Could Help Avoid Seasonal Depression

As the weather gets colder, more and more people are starting to feel the blues. These feelings of unease, loneliness, and stress are signs you may be dealing with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, which affects about 10 million Americans. Some of us experience sadness or mood swings, whereas others find it hard to stay focused and may lose interest in the things they used to enjoy.

The exact cause of seasonal depression is unknown, but researchers believe it has something to do with the lack of sunlight. This can trigger chemical changes in the brain and boost melatonin production, affecting your mood and energy, per Johns Hopkins Medicine

Less commonly, some people experience seasonal depression in the late spring. "It's not something that's in the diagnostic manual, it's not recognized as a thing, but I can tell you that in April and May, our phones are ringing off the hook," said Linnea Butler, a licensed marriage and family therapist, in an interview with Psycom.

In either case, seasonal affective disorder is most likely related to the changes our bodies go through as the seasons change. To combat seasonal depression, the experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine recommend spending more time outdoors and doing things that bring you joy. 

But, while there's no foolproof way to cure seasonal depression, you may be able to reduce its impact by prioritizing pleasure. 

Focus on what brings you pleasure to combat seasonal affective disorder

When you're feeling down, it's hard to carry on with your day and do the things you enjoy. However, lying on the couch or sleeping until noon isn't ideal, as it could actually make things worse, clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher told InStyle. Instead, she recommends engaging in activities that bring you pleasure, whether it's walking, traveling, cooking, or gardening, to combat seasonal affective disorder.

Gallagher's approach has its roots in behavioral activation, a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy. This method helps reinforce healthy behaviors by changing how we interact with our environment. At the same time, it allows us to identify and address the factors that keep us from engaging in "feel-good" activities, according to clinical research published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Behavioral activation allows people to understand the cycle of depression, set goals, and find the motivation to accomplish them, notes the University of Michigan. For example, listening to sad music when you're feeling down can fuel depression, even if you don't realize it. Similarly, choosing to stay in bed instead of going out when you're feeling sad or stressed can make things worse.

Behavioral activation could help you identify these triggers through journaling and other techniques. What's more, it sheds light on the things that give your life meaning, fuel personal growth, or bring you pleasure. 

How to find your mojo and beat the winter blues

An experienced therapist could help you beat seasonal depression, but there are things you can do yourself to get in a better mood. For starters, make a list of activities you feel good about, suggests the University of Michigan. Next, create another column and write down the activities that negatively impact your mood. Meanwhile, try to find new activities that would bring you joy, and list them in the first column. Think about your passions, values, goals, and the causes you support.

Behavioral activation is more complex than that, but you get the point. Try to identify the things that matter to you, and build your schedule around them while avoiding those that fuel negative thinking

For example, someone who enjoys spending time outdoors could join a hiking club or commit to taking a daily walk. Natural light stimulates the production of serotonin, the "feel-good" hormone that can lift your mood and reduce depression, says Hartford HealthCare. If you're happiest around animals, consider volunteering at a pet shelter. Alternatively, sign up for horseback riding classes, adopt a pet, or visit an animal sanctuary. 

To prevent seasonal affective disorder from even kicking in, the Canadian Mental Health Association recommends starting an exercise program months ahead of when you'd normally start to feel blue. Physical activity builds mental resilience and wards off stress while boosting your energy levels. What matters most is to be consistent and take regular "me" time, no matter how busy the day gets.