Travel is often a great way to improve your mental health. Getting out of the usual routine, exploring new sights and sounds, becoming familiar with different foods and cultures, and experiencing an added boost of relaxation or adventure can be the perfect recipe for getting yourself out of a rut and renewing your zest for life. But if you’re traveling to certain destinations in the late fall and winter, it’s important to guard yourself against developing seasonal affective disorder, better known as SAD.
What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), SAD is a type of depression that typically occurs during the shorter daylight hours characteristic of the late fall and winter. It is believed to be related to a lack of sunlight, leading people to feel “down” or depressed. Symptoms often start to decrease or disappear as daylight increases in the spring.
Signs and symptoms of SAD
SAD is not a separate type of depression, but is instead defined by its seasonal pattern. Typically lasting four to five months, symptoms of SAD include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day
- Losing interest in activities that used to be enjoyable
- Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
- Having sleep difficulties
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having low energy
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having trouble concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
For SAD that occurs in the fall and winter months (as opposed to the less-common spring and summer pattern), additional symptoms may include:
- Overeating, particularly carbohydrate foods
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal or “hibernation”
(If you are in distress or thinking of hurting yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741), or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.)
In the northern hemisphere, late October through November is the most common time for a SAD episode to begin, and the prevalence of SAD is higher among people living further north (or south) of the equator, possibly due to the drastically shortened daylight hours during the winter months.
So, what can you do to decrease your chances of developing SAD if you’ll be spending time in the northern latitudes this fall and winter?
Tips to avoid SAD while traveling
Before you’ve even booked your tickets, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of SAD while on the road. First off, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider or therapist. They can provide you with advice and, if needed, treatments specific to your situation. (Some people are prescribed medicines for the treatment of SAD and advised to start taking them before the onset of symptoms in the fall or winter.)
You can also discuss with your doctor whether the use of a portable light box might be helpful. This form of light therapy is designed to “deliver a therapeutic dose of bright light to treat symptoms of SAD,” says the Mayo Clinic. Important factors to consider when choosing a light box include:
- Whether the device is designed specifically to treat SAD
- How bright the light is
- How much UV light it releases
- Whether it has features in place to prevent eye damage
- If it’s the style you need (for example, portability and packability are key to consider when traveling)
- Whether you’ll be able to place the box at the right distance with the setup you’ll be using
Some people, such as those with bipolar disorder or certain types of eye conditions, may be advised against using light therapy or using it in specific ways, so be sure to speak with your healthcare provider about the suitability of this approach for you before investing in a light box.
If you’ve been prescribed any treatments for managing SAD or other mood disorders, ensure you have a sufficient supply prior to traveling. Also make sure you understand how, how much, and when to take your medicine.
If possible, you may prefer to choose destinations closer to the equator, which will have more hours of daylight, or to travel to more northern locales in the spring or summer, when there is naturally more sunlight. (That said, nothing quite replaces the chance to see the northern lights in Scandinavia or attend a winter festival in Canada!)
Managing SAD symptoms while traveling
Your bags are packed and you’re on your way! To reduce your likelihood of developing SAD while you’re on the road, the following strategies can help.
Adopt and stick to a sleep routine
Travel has a tendency to throw the usual schedules out of whack. This is part of the excitement, but it’s also important to adopt and stick to a certain basic routine to ensure you feel your best. According to the University of Missouri (MU) Health Care, sticking to a sleep schedule can help set your internal clock. Varying sleep patterns can have an effect similar to jet lag. It’s best, according to Margaret Mike, MD, an MU Health Care neurologist specializing in sleep medicine, to stay within an hour in either direction of your established sleep and wake times.
Get natural morning light
Exposing yourself to natural morning sunlight can be energizing, increasing levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter and hormone that helps regulate sleep, healing, and digestion, among other important body functions). So, sit by a window while you have your breakfast, go for a morning walk, or schedule some outdoor sightseeing to start your day. Even 20 or 30 minutes a day can make a difference, said psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, in an interview with The New York Times.
Get vitamin D
Also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D plays an important role in mental health. Along with natural sunlight, sources of the vitamin include foods such as salmon, egg yolks, and mushrooms (that have been exposed to sunlight or ultraviolet light), according to Crestwood Medical Center. (Speak with your healthcare provider before adding a vitamin D supplement to your routine.)
Get physical activity
Staying active is another important method for warding off the winter blues. Research has shown that exercise can lessen SAD symptoms and improve mood and energy. Being active releases endorphins, or feel-good chemicals in the brain, and can help distract from worrying thoughts. For an extra boost, get your exercise outside in the natural sunlight, and turn the opportunity into a social occasion by inviting your travel companions to join you.
From going on adventures with your trip mates to meeting new friends along the way, travel provides plenty of opportunities to be social. And for the purposes of staving off SAD (not to mention for the fun of it), it’s important to take advantage of these when they arise. Being social can help you feel supported and less alone and help provide a smoother path through any difficult emotions you may be feeling.
Limit alcohol and caffeine
Although vacation is often a time for indulging, it’s important to set limits when it comes to alcohol and caffeine. Although they may provide a short-term boost to mood or energy levels, they can interfere with sleep and increase anxiety or depression in the longer-term.
Practical considerations for managing SAD while traveling
Along with the strategies outlined above, there are a number of additional approaches to help you stay comfortable and in bright spirits throughout your trip. First off, ensure you pack appropriately, bringing adequate cold-weather clothing and gear for your destination. And to help ward off homesickness, bring a small taste of home — photos of loved ones or a beloved stuffed animal are a couple of possibilities.
Also be sure to choose your accommodations carefully. Selecting lodgings that have large windows to allow in ample sunlight is key, and spaces such as gyms or community rooms for exercising and socializing can also be helpful.
Lastly, do your research prior to your trip: Locate therapists, mental health clinics, and support groups near where you’ll be staying to help guide you through any rough patches during your visit.
Navigating new horizons
Above all, remember that traveling offers the opportunity to see the world through new eyes. Embrace the novelty, enjoy the new memories you’re creating, prioritize your mental health, and seek ways to stay uplifted during the shorter days.
Disclaimer of Medical Advice: This information does not constitute medical advice or recommendation of any kind, and you should not rely on any information contained in such posts or comments to replace consultations with your qualified healthcare professionals to meet your individual needs.