“Winter blues” may actually be Seasonal Affective Disorder

January 13, 2023
Health & Wellness

During mid-winter, you may hear people talk about the “winter blues.” In fact, they may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

“Seasonal affective disorder is a specific type of depression and is more common in winter months in our area,” says Claire Haedike, Psy.D., Mayo Clinic Health System psychologist at Winneshiek Medical Center. She adds, “The second most common type is summer depression.”

Many people experience some change in mood and functioning (i.e. fatigue, energy level, appetite) at the change of a season but generally people acclimate.  Seasonal Affective Disorder is different because it is a subtype of depression.  Symptoms of SAD are consistent with symptoms of depression and can last anywhere from several weeks to several months: feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day, having low energy, feeling hopeless or worthless, losing interest in activities you once enjoy, having problems sleeping, experiencing changes in appetite (especially craving foods high in carbohydrates) or weight, having difficulty concentrating, feeling agitated or sluggish, experiencing a heaviness in arms and legs, and having thoughts of death or suicide. 

According to mayoclinic.org, the specific cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. Some factors that may come into play include:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). Reduced levels of sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood.
  • Melatonin levels. Changes in seasons may disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Treatment for SAD is important to avoid chronic or re-occurring depression.  Treatment may include light therapy, medications and psychotherapy.  These self-help tips can also be useful in treating SAD:

  • Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds and trim trees that block sunlight. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.
  • Get outside. Take a walk or just sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help — especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise and other types of physical activity help relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms.
  • Normalize sleep patterns: Schedule reliable times to wake up and go to bed each day.
  • Ensure you are spending time interacting with family and friends (increasing social support)
  • Make sure you are doing things you find enjoyable (hobbies, learning something new, etc.)

“It’s normal to have days when you may feel down,” says Dr. Haedike. “But if this feeling lasts more than a few days and you just can’t seem to get motivated to do things you enjoy, you should see your doctor.”

In addition, if you turn to alcohol for comfort or discover that sleep patterns and appetite have changed or you have feelings of hopelessness, these are all signs to seek help by making an appointment with your local doctor. If you have thoughts of suicide, please seek help now by calling the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988 or by reporting to your local emergency room.  

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