The winter season can be difficult for many people. Whether it is the holidays or seasonal melancholy, the shorter days or the bitter cold, people who find themselves sad or depressed in the winter might spend the season feeling bad and not knowing why. If you become depressed during seasonal changes or exhibit depressive symptoms, it might be a part of a larger problem. 

Disclaimer: The following article provides information that should not be used to replace expert medical advice. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have questions about any medical matter, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider immediately. 

What is Seasonal Depression?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, is a form of depression related to changes in the season. People with SAD experience drastic changes in mood due to the seasonal changes to daylight hours and circadian rhythm, weather, and other factors. SAD symptoms usually occur in fall and winter, known as winter-pattern SAD, but the less common summer-pattern SAD that occurs in spring and summer is also possible.

Symptoms

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

While symptoms for winter and summer-pattern SAD can be similar, some symptoms are more specific to a certain type.

Winter-Pattern Specific Symptoms

  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)

Summer-Pattern Specific Symptoms

  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Restlessness, agitation, or anxiety
  • Episodes of violent behavior

Risk Factors

There are many risk factors associated with seasonal depression, some which we do not entirely understand. Risk factors include:

  • Age – SAD is most likely to occur in young adults (late teens to early twenties).
  • Gender –  SAD is more likely to occur in women.
  • Family History – People with SAD may be more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.
  • Having major depression or bipolar disorder – SAD affects 10-20% of people with major depressive disorder and about 25% of people with bipolar disorder. These conditions may worsen symptoms of depression seasonally.
  • Geographic Location  – SAD appears to be more common among people who live far away from the equator.
  • Low Vitamin D Levels – People with low vitamin D can be at increased risk of SAD. 
  • Elevated inflammation – Too many sugary, refined, processed foods, not enough exercise, and not enough sleep can cause elevated inflammation. This inflammation can both factor into the development of seasonal depression and be caused by depressive symptoms.

Treatment Options for Seasonal Depression

There are many treatment options for SAD, including the following.

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, is a form of treatment wherein mental health professionals communicate with patients to identify issues that cause emotional distress.

Bright Light Therapy

Bright light therapy uses light to treat disorders that affect the circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock. [3]

Supplements

Supplements might be able to help when lifestyle and diet changes aren’t enough. Certain supplements may alleviate symptoms of SAD, depending on your specific needs, such as Vitamin D supplements. 

Maximize Daylight Hours

Maximizing daylight hours can ease your body’s adjustment to the shorter days of winter. Waking up earlier to experience more daylight can trick your body’s circadian rhythm into readjusting itself to a more ideal setting.

Go Outside

Going outside, even if you don’t feel like it, is an effective way to combat seasonal depression. It might be difficult as engaging in productive and healthy activities can be challenging with depression, but try going out if you’re able. Going outside can provide more sunlight, fresh air, and exercise–all known to be lacking when experiencing SAD. Sitting on your porch, going on a walk, or making a trip to the store are all good ways to get out.

Maintain a Healthy Diet

A healthy diet may be what you’re lacking, as the problems can be as simple as you’re not eating enough of the right foods. Consider eating more carbs and proteins to balance out your body’s chemical imbalances and promote the production of serotonin and dopamine.

Mind-Body Connection

Improving your mind-body connection can help you cope with seasonal depression. Examples of mind-body techniques include:

  • Relaxation techniques such as yoga or tai chi
  • Meditation
  • Guided imagery
  • Music or art therapy
  • Exercise

Control Negative Thoughts

While it is easier said than done, controlling negative thoughts is another effective way to cope with SAD. Positive thoughts and affirmations can give negative thoughts less power and improve self-esteem.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

Contact your primary care provider or a mental health professional if:

  • You believe you may have seasonal depression
  • You experience new or worsening symptoms
  • Persistent depressive symptoms
  • You turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation
  • You feel hopeless or think about suicide
  • You feel you are a danger to yourself or others

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