Hello darkness my old friend.



The “winter blues” are a sluggish and low mood that appears over the winter months. While sometimes seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is referred to as the winter blues, SAD is a formal major depression diagnosis and the winter blues is not.

The symptoms of the winter blues do not rise to the level of a mental illness, but can still be unpleasant and somewhat impairing for people.

In some northern climates, full-blown SAD is experienced by 10% of people while another 30% experience the winter blues.

Symptoms of the Winter Blues

The symptoms of the winter blues are similar to depression but are milder. Symptoms of the winter blues include a low or sad mood as well as:

  • Irritability
  • Decreased energy, fatigue
  • Change in appetite
  • Lack of motivation

If low mood symptoms continue for more than two weeks, and are significantly impairing day-to-day functioning, a doctor should be seen for a full depression screening (take our free online depression test).

Beating the Winter Blues – Diet and Exercise

Beating the winter blues involves mostly lifestyle changes in diet, exercise and sleep patterns but light therapy and psychotherapy may also be helpful.

Diet and exercise are tied into how our whole body works. A diet with too many sugars (simple carbohydrates), saturated fats or alcohol will bring down mood. Having a sugary treat may feel good at the moment, but will leave you feeling tired soon after. A healthy diet will keep energy levels up and prevent any winter weight gain. Getting a full eight hours of sleep every night also helps energy during the day.

Exercise has been shown to be a powerful antidepressant in those with depression and can help those with the winter blues too. Not only can exercise improve your mood and combat stress but, combined with a healthy diet, can boost energy throughout the day. Exercise with a friend is particularly useful as it combines the benefits of exercise with the benefits of socializing with others.

Beating the Winter Blues – Therapy and Light

It’s known that those with seasonal affective disorder do significantly better when treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and light therapy together. This therapy may be useful for the winter blues as well. CBT focuses on understanding one’s own thought processes and learning to use tools to alter those thoughts.

Light therapy is frequently used in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder as the reduction of light available in the winter appears to evoke depressive symptoms in some people. Additional light for the winter blues can also be helpful. This does not mean turning on every light in the house, however.

This means getting more natural sunlight and the addition of more natural light in the home can also help.

Ways to get light for the winter blues include:

  • Spending more time outdoors; for example, frequent trips to the ski slopes or going for walks everyday.
  • Switch indoor lights to full-spectrum or 4100 Kelvin bulbs.
  • Use a seasonal affective disorder light box.

The following tips help enhance mental health through the changing seasons:

  • Create a new routine that helps you enjoy things despite the early darkness (reading, board games, crafts, puzzles, etc.)
  • Work in movement throughout the day (brief walks, stretches, climbing stairs, etc.) to keep your energy level constant
  • Stock up on a variety of favorite teas or coffees, depending on your personal caffeine tolerance
  • Be mindful of what you eat, for diet affects mental health
  • Identify what you love about the season, and be intentional about incorporating that into your life.

There is no known cause of seasonal affective disorder but researchers currently think it may be related to:

  • Changes in biological clock as the seasons change
  • A disruption in the hormone melatonin
  • A drop in the neurotransmitter serotonin, possibly due to reduced sunlight

Seasonal depression can be related to the summer or winter months, each with their own seasonal depression symptoms.

Fall and winter seasonal affective disorder symptoms can include:

  • Depression, hopelessness
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of energy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Oversleeping
  • Loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities
  • Overeating, weight gain
  • Difficulty thinking and concentrating

Seasonal depression in the summer is somewhat different. Rather than experiencing the marked low mood of depression, more irritable characteristics may come out. Typical spring and summer seasonal depression symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability, agitation
  • Lack of appetite, weight loss
  • Increased sex drive

Seasonal Depression Treatment

While some people think they have to “tough out” seasonal depression, there is no need for this as there are effective seasonal depression treatments available. Treatments for seasonal affective disorder include psychotherapy, SAD bright light therapy and/or medication.

While seasonal depression is thought to be related to biological factors, psychotherapy is still a treatment option.

Therapy for seasonal depression disorder can both teach the patient about their illness as well as support the patient through depressive episodes. Psychotherapy can also treat any underlying condition that may be contributing to the seasonal depression.

Bright light therapy is the most common seasonal depression disorder treatment. Bright light therapy attempts to increase the amount of “sunlight” received via a specialized light box. Patients spend a set period of time per day in front of their light box to treat seasonal depression. The way in which bright light therapy works, however, is unclear.

To learn more you can visit: http://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/mental-health-newsletter/how-seasonal-changes-can-affect-our-mental-health/#seasonal


About Jennifer Shay, LCSW, ACSW

Licensed Clinical Social Worker
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