How Meditation Can Help Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

How Meditation Can Help Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

An Excerpt from Defeating SAD: A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All Seasons

Getty/Stanislav Hubkin

A seasonal affective disorder expert and light therapy pioneer shares how mindfulness can strongly support other treatments for SAD.

One must have a mind of winter.
—Wallace Stevens

Winter is a good season for meditation. Nature slows down, and even commerce takes a break after the giddy pace of the holidays. One way to fall into the rhythm of winter rather than fight it is to look inward. This may help you reap many rewards, such as peace, tranquility, insight, and creativity, as well as feelings of kindness and generosity to your fellow human beings. It is hard to feel kind when you are stressed.

Since there are no controlled studies of meditation for SAD, allow me to share a few relevant anecdotes of people with SAD whom I have met in the course of my exploration. They will give you a glimpse how different forms of meditation are practiced and how they may help you get through the winter. Although these techniques can be beneficial for people with SAD, you don’t have to have SAD to benefit from them. They may also be enjoyable to undertake with your partner.

There are many ways to meditate: sitting or being active, focusing on something in particular (thoughts, images, your breath) or allowing a mantra to come to you. Each type has its proponents. I am not here to judge one over the others but simply to describe and illustrate them so that you can explore which may best offer you peace, insight, and joy at a time of year when you need it most.

Many books have been written on different forms of meditation, some of which I cite in the references. As I see it, there are two main wellsprings of meditation: mindfulness, derived from the Buddhist tradition, and transcendence, derived from the Vedic (Hindu) tradition. I believe that all of these forms may help people with SAD. I will briefly summarize them and give you some examples of how they have worked for specific people with SAD.


Rezvan Ameli, who has taught mindfulness meditation at the National Institutes of Health for many years, explains, “There are two huge wings to mindfulness. One involves helping people develop moment-by-moment awareness; the other helps them develop loving-kindness.”

The first of these two “wings,” often called “open monitoring,” involves nonjudgmental awareness of the contents of experience as they shift from one moment to the next. This includes the breath, bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, movements, and the environment. The meditator is encouraged to maintain an open, curious, and accepting attitude to whatever enters awareness.

Another aspect of mindfulness is focused attention, which, as its name implies, involves focusing on something in particular, such as the breath, an image, or kind and loving thoughts.

Consider the following examples of people with SAD who have been helped by practicing different forms of mindfulness.

Alison: Walking Meditation

I begin with this form of meditation because I have already endorsed the value of walking, especially outdoors. Besides deriving the benefits of regular exercise and natural light in treating her SAD symptoms, Alison, a longtime meditator, experiences added value in directing her attention in specific ways as she walks in the world-famous Kew Gardens near her home outside London. As she walks, Alison assumes “the half smile of the Buddha,” counting her breaths and her steps and directing her mind to such thoughts as: “I’ve arrived. I’m home, in the here, in the now; I’m solid; I’m free.” This particular form of mindfulness meditation—walking meditation—helps Alison feel anchored and takes her mind off sorrowful and obsessive thoughts, which are painful aspects of her SAD. As she puts it, “I note the color of things, my feelings, the movements of my body. It grounds and calms me. It gets me out of my head.” Alison feels as though “mindful walking” is an important element in treating her SAD.

Helen: Combining Different Types of Mindfulness

Helen is a retired biology lecturer with a long history of SAD, for which she has combined several different approaches. Light therapy helped her to a significant degree, but she felt that she needed something more, and settled on different forms of mindfulness meditation.

Observing her breath calms her down and leads her to vipassana, or insight, in which the meditator is encouraged to have a clear sense of what is happening as it happens, to see things as they really are. Her meditation has taught her, she says, to “observe the rising and passing of states of mind.” By realizing that all things pass, she has attained a state of equanimity, which counteracts the feelings of being stuck in the unhappiness and anxiety so common in SAD. Both Helen and those close to her have noticed that she is much calmer since starting to meditate.

Periodically Helen adds another form of mindfulness meditation: loving-kindness and compassion. After tuning in to her inner thoughts and feelings, she brings to mind thoughts in response to concerns that may arise during meditation in relation to herself or others, such as:

“May I be safe. May I be kind to myself” (loving-kindness towards herself).

“May he or she be free. May no harm come to him or her” (compassion towards others).

Meditation expert Chris Germer distinguishes these two emotions as follows: “Loving-kindness refers to a wish for all beings to be happy, whereas compassion is the wish for them to be free of suffering. Through this type of messaging, the goal is to cultivate goodwill towards oneself and others.”

Combining Mindfulness with Cognitive Therapy, Yoga, and Tai Chi

Since the essence of mindfulness is to focus on your moment-to-moment experience with a positive attitude, the technique lends itself to combination with other approaches, such as cognitive therapy. In addition, Eastern physical practices such as yoga and tai chi have been called “mindfulness in motion” insofar as they encourage the practitioner to be conscious of the changing feelings that arise during movements, stretches, and postures.

Both yoga and tai chi (as well as other Eastern physical arts) can reduce stress and be combined with other ways of treating SAD.

Transcendental Meditation (TM)

Just as people prefer different types of exercise, so they tend to gravitate to different types of meditation. My personal favorite is Transcendental Meditation (TM), which I have practiced for the past seventeen years, written about, and recommended to several of my patients, with excellent results.

In this form of meditation, the student is taught one-on-one and provided with a word sound or mantra, along with instruction as to how to “think” the mantra. Superficially, you might think about this technique as a variant of mindfulness, but here the element of focus is avoided. Instead, for the technique to be effective, the meditator is taught how to access the mantra automatically. The effect is that the meditator enters a state of transcendence, which is blissful and relaxing. Ideally, the technique is practiced twice a day. Over time, meditators often experience changes in consciousness even when they are not meditating, which are associated with many benefits to both physical health and psychological well-being. TM is particularly good for stress reduction. It can be surprisingly helpful for people with SAD during their difficult winter days when even small things feel stressful, as the following vignette illustrates.

Angela: TM for SAD

Angela was a forty-five-year old lawyer from Glasgow, Scotland, when we first made contact with each other. Although she described her mood swings as “a wee bit of the ups and downs,” they sounded quite nasty to me. Angela acknowledged that in the winter she felt “very low, grumpy, and down.” She dreaded the short days, when she would feel like “hibernating” and would ask herself, “How can I get through until the light comes?” Light therapy was of little use to her, perhaps, she admits, because she didn’t use it consistently.

A friend strongly recommended TM to Angela, and though she is skeptical by nature, she took her friend’s suggestion. Here is how Angela describes the effects of TM:

I still don’t understand the logic of it, but the technique works for me. Even though I still dislike the winter, I can cope with it. I don’t have the crushing dread I used to have as winter approaches. I used to spend a whole lot of energy getting my knickers in a twist. Now I’m not as uptight about little things, and if I start along that path, I stop myself more quickly. Even though I’m not walking on air, life has improved across the board.

One effect of TM that has surprised Angela is how other people have reacted to her changed behavior. Even the opposing lawyer in a trial gave her a backhanded compliment when he said, “You’re not your usual jangly self.” Noticing how much better she was doing, her clerk asked her if she was on medication. She told me that, “If I miss my TM for a while, people can tell the difference even over the phone. I’m much quicker to rile, angrier and jangly. On the other hand, when I do my TM regularly, people are nicer to me because I am nicer to them. I get more the luck of the draw. Shop attendants and even parking wardens are more likely to help me. Who ever heard of a parking warden doing that?”


Meditation and other healthy habits such as regular exercise and good sleep, in combination with light therapy and other techniques outlined in Defeating SAD, will give you the best chance of surviving the winter, and possibly, against all apparent odds, enjoying it.

How Meditation Can Help Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder SAD

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