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Combatting Seasonal Affective Disorder

The winter months in Pittsburgh aren’t known for their high temperatures and blue sunny skies. Pittsburgh is one of the gloomiest cities in the United States, so it’s no wonder that there may be days when people here feel more down and less energetic. The gloomy winter weather here can lead to cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression.

Sara Makin
Sara Makin

Seasonal Affective Disorder, according to Sara Makin, CEO of Makin Wellness, is feeling down or sad during specific times of the year—usually during fall and winter, when there’s not as much sunlight. “It’s not exactly known why it happens, but it’s believed to be connected to how much light we get. Light affects our body’s internal clock and certain chemicals in our brain, like serotonin, which affects mood, and melatonin, which helps regulate sleep,” Makin explained.

Abby Ritter
Abby Ritter

SAD is a recently discovered disorder, having first been described in 1984 by Norman Rosenthal as a “syndrome characterized be recurrent depressions that occur annually at the same time each year,” according to Abby Ritter, a counselor with Calm PITTSBURGH. “The most common seasonal pattern is for depressive episodes to appear in the fall or winter and remit in the spring,” she said.

As both Ritter and Makin explained, SAD episodes are more likely to happen in the winter months, but there are other factors as well. “Things like your family history, if you’ve had other mood issues before, and changes in how your body makes melatonin can play a role in getting SAD,” Makin said, “It’s a combination of these factors that might make some people feel more down during certain times of the year.”

It may be hard to determine if what one is experiencing is just a down day or two, or SAD—that is where the mental health professionals come into play. “To figure out if someone has seasonal or year-round depression, we look at when the symptoms happen. SAD symptoms show up around the same time each year, usually in fall and winter. On the flip side, year-round depression sticks around throughout the whole year and doesn’t depend on the seasons. It’s important to talk to a mental health professional to get the full picture and the right diagnosis,” Makin said.

Ritter suggested various signs that someone may be suffering from SAD and other forms of depression. “If there is an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness or sadness, issues with sleeping—maybe you can’t sleep or your are oversleeping, changes in appetite—eating less or too much, the feeling of no energy, avoiding others and changes in personal hygiene,” she said.

Once diagnosed, there are ways to help alleviate SAD. “Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, involves exposure to a bright light that mimics natural sunlight. This can help regulate circadian rhythms and alleviate your symptoms of SAD,” Makin said.

Talking with counselors like Makin and Ritter may also be extremely helpful. “Talking with a professional can help you determine what is going on, what your experiences are and how we can work to help,” Ritter said, “Together we can work on a plan.”

Physical activity and movement is often very helpful for those who experience SAD and other forms of depression. “Even when it is gloomy, try to get outside; it’s really important to try to get fresh air and out in the natural environment. If you can connect to nature, maybe even during your lunch break, that can help,” Ritter said.

Makin also recommended movement. “Regular physical activity has been shown to improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression. We typically encourage clients to engage in outdoor activities, weather permitting,” she said.

Any form of exercise is helpful, Ritter, a yoga instructor and long-distance runner herself, said. “Anything that is moving the body—I suggest whatever type of exercise is appealing to them. It may be yoga, it may be walking, hiking, running, cycling—whatever gets you moving.”

Makin also recommends looking at nutrition and diet. “A balanced diet, rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, can support your overall mental health. Encouraging healthy lifestyle choices, such as maintaining a regular sleep schedule and managing stress, is also important,” she said.

Social interaction also is a key component in lessening SAD and other forms of depression. “We encourage you to maintain social connections and engage in activities with loved ones as they can provide emotional support and reduce your feelings of isolation,” Makin said.

Planning for activities that make someone happy and that they can look forward to is helpful, Ritter said. “I call them ‘anchors.’ I ask my clients what their anchors are, things that make them happy, and then have them schedule those things in their lives,” she said.

Makin said that medications may also be used to help treat SAD. “Antidepressant medications, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are commonly prescribed to manage SAD symptoms,” she said.

Ritter also said that sticking to a routine is good for those with SAD. “I have found it helpful for my clients to have consistency in routine. But also, give yourself permission to slow down in the winter months—go with the rhythms of nature.”

For more information about Makin Wellness, visit or call 833-274-heal.

For more information about Calm PITTSBURGH, visit, call 412-857-3717 or email at

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