Many people go through periods where their moods are impacted by the changing of the seasons. Feeling ‘down’ in the winter is a common experience, as well as periods of anxiety when the days are shorter and the nights are longer. However, if you are noticing that your mood changes are significantly impacting how you feel, think or handle daily activities then your ‘winter blues’ may be an indication of SAD, which is a type of depression.
There are many theories about why some people are impacted by SAD, the most common being that it’s a biochemical imbalance in the brain brought on by fewer daylight hours and less direct sunlight in fall and winter. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, the main risks for seasonal affective disorder are age, sex, history of depression, and distance from the equator — with those living in more northern latitudes experiencing SAD at high rates. Of particular note — women seem to get SAD at twice the rates of men and the condition usually starts in women during their 20s or 30s.
Recognizing signs and symptoms is an important first step so you can take care of your mental wellbeing and get additional support if needed. The signs and symptoms of SAD are often similar to depression — increased sadness or anxiety, loss of enjoyment in activities, fatigue, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and weight gain associated with overeating and carbohydrate cravings. A major depressive disorder lasts for at least two weeks and affects a person’s ability to work, carry out usual daily activities and have satisfying personal relationships. It impacts a person’s emotions, thinking, behavior and physical well-being. Not everyone’s symptoms will look the same — they can vary from mild and almost unnoticeable to severe and impacting their daily life in significant ways.
What should you do if you or someone you know might be suffering from SAD? It is important to note that if you’re feeling like you or someone you know has the symptoms of SAD, please seek the help of a trained medical professional. As with other forms of depression, it is important to work with a professional to correctly diagnose SAD versus another form of depression or a different medical issue. Because SAD shares many common symptoms of other common medical issues, often being misdiagnosed as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, infectious mononucleosis, and other viral infections, it is important to receive a proper evaluation is key to make sure you receive a correct diagnosis If you’re not sure where to turn, start with your primary care physician. This person can help share more information with you about effective treatments and support available in your local community.
The good news is that there are treatments that work. SAD can be effectively treated in several ways, including light therapy, antidepressant medications, talk therapy or some combination of these. Additionally, a combination of diet, exercise, and other protective factors like community or family support can be impactful in blunting the impacts of SAD. While symptoms will generally improve on their own with the change of season in spring and summer, symptoms can improve more quickly with additional support and treatment. Just because winter is here, you don’t have to suffer. You are not alone and there is treatment available. We all deserve a happy, healthy life — all year round.
If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 800-273-TALK (8255). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (741-741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.
American Psychiatric Association (APA). Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). APA. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/seasonal-affective-disorder.
Mental Health First Aid USA. 2020. Mental Health First Aid USA for Adults Assisting Adults. Washington, DC: National Council for Behavioral Health.
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Seasonal Affective Disorder. NIMH. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder.