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Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder?

sad snowman cartoon

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year—except for six percent of the population that suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD)[1]. This winter, COVID-19 is expected to intensify the depression experienced by many people suffering from SAD. Now more than ever, it’s important to take care of your mental health. As the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, here’s everything you should know about seasonal affective disorder and steps to take if you’re experiencing the winter blues.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, also known as seasonal depression or SAD, is a type of depression that is triggered by seasonal changes, most commonly occurring during the colder fall and winter months[1].  Depression can last throughout the year, but if your symptoms only appear during a particular season, you may be experiencing SAD. About six percent of the U.S. population experiences seasonal depression, and another 14 percent of the adult U.S. population suffers from a less intense form of seasonal mood changes, known as winter blues[1].

In most cases, symptoms from SAD begin during late fall or early winter and go away during the brighter days of spring or summer. Although less common, some may experience spring-onset SAD—depression that occurs during the warmer months.

According to Cedars Sinai, doctors believe that the lack of sunlight can trigger chemicals in the brain that can make you feel sluggish, sad, unmotivated, and essentially, depressed[2]. Other common symptoms include oversleeping, appetite changes, weight gain, and tiredness. There are also studies linking melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, to SAD. Darkness prompts melatonin to be produced in the penial gland in the brain. When the days are shorter and darker, more melatonin is made[3].

What to Do if You’re Experiencing SAD

It’s normal to feel down once in a while, but if it’s a reoccurring feeling, you may want to seek treatment. Light therapy, exposure to sunlight, psychotherapy, medications, stress management, a healthy diet, and physical exercise are the most popular ways to treat SAD symptoms[2].

Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, the psychiatrist who first identified SAD in the 1980’s recommends:“ A 20-minute early morning walk in the sun is as good as commercial light therapy, but while morning is best, whenever you can do a walk is helpful. The combination of exercise and outdoor light is crucially important. It connects you with your environment — not just the light but also the birds, trees, animal life, neighborhood — all can act as an antidote to the cocoon of isolation[1]."

Especially during COVID-19, it’s important to maintain a sense of community, even if that means trading in-person visits for video or phone calls. If you live in a seasonal climate, remember that the gloominess is only temporary and there are still ways to find purpose and joy in each day.


If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, go to an emergency room, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness site (nami.org) for additional resources.

1.    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2686645/#B

2.    
https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/s/seasonal-  affective-disorder-or-sad.htm

3.    
https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/melatonin-and-sleep#:~:text=Melatonin%20is%20a%20natural%20hormone,causes%20that%20production%20to%20stop.

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