Seasonal depression – also referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the Winter Blues – is a form of depression that people experience during the fall and winter months. It affects a significant portion of the population and is more common in women, but anyone can experience it.
What causes seasonal depression?
Seasonal depression is linked to less daylight and colder weather. While not everyone will experience changes in mood based on these factors alone, a lack of daylight (and therefore vitamin D) combined with being cooped up indoors can lead people to experience the winter blues. Because our bodies are very sensitive to changes in sunlight, shorter days and overcast skies can impact our mental health. It’s estimated that 3% of the population suffers from moderate to severe seasonal depression and another 10% suffers from mild seasonal depression.
Symptoms of seasonal depression
Before psychological symptoms appear, most people will see an increase in physical symptoms: trouble waking up in the morning, grogginess, fatigue, and weight gain. These symptoms are followed (usually within weeks) by typical depression symptoms: anxiety, disinterest in social activities, lack of motivation to complete normal daily activities, loneliness, and a general sense of despair. The main difference between seasonal depression and nonseasonal depression is the length of episodes: seasonal depression will peak in January and February and subside by late spring (May), whereas nonseasonal depression doesn’t follow any predictable schedule.
If you suffer from seasonal depression, there are a number of things you can try to decrease your symptoms:
Because seasonal depression is tied to lower light levels in the winter, exposure to lights that mimic the sun’s spectrum have been shown to help. Many companies market “happy lights,” as many call them. Exposure to these bright lights in the hours right after sunrise have been shown to reduce seasonal depression symptoms.
Spend time outdoors in the morning/midday
If special lights are not in your budget, try to take advantage of natural light. Getting outside for 30 minutes to an hour in the morning, if weather permits, can have similar benefits as a light machine – especially on those sunny winter days. This can also help reset your circadian rhythm, which in turn can help with sleep.
Getting 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily has been shown to have a number of health benefits, from promoting better sleep, increasing energy levels, and increasing serotonin and endorphin levels – two of the “feel good” chemicals created by our brain. A brisk walk (especially in the morning or midday hours when the sun is at its highest point in the sky) can help boost your mood.
If you find that your symptoms are not manageable through the above methods, it might be worth finding a therapist who specializes in treating seasonal depression, or set up an appointment with your primary care physician to discuss options. They can help you come up with a plan of treatment, including medication if it’s needed.
How and When to Seek Help
For many people, it can take years to recognize the seasonal nature of these mood shifts. But once they realize that their symptoms are tied to seasonal changes, managing them becomes easier. Knowing this isn’t a permanent state of being can be a great consolation, and a general awareness of what’s causing your symptoms can lead to the ability to see them for what they are: temporary and a normal variation of the human psyche.
It can be challenging for patients to determine when they should seek help and to find the right provider to help. If you are curious whether you might be suffering from seasonal depression, the nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics offers a number of free online assessments that can help you document your symptoms and organize your thoughts before seeking professional help (if you decide you need it).
For the majority of people, symptoms don’t require professional treatment; however, some people can develop worsening problems that include thoughts of suicide. If you have severe symptoms, including thoughts of suicide, it’s important to seek medical attention right away – the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – dial 988 from any phone to reach them. You can also dial 911 if you feel like you are in imminent danger to yourself. If you feel you need help but these options don’t seem right for you, please call us and we can help you figure out how to get the help you need.