Seasonal affective disorder is more than just the “winter blues”
By Christina Varvatsis, PharmD, BCPS Nov 03, 2022 • 4 min
Many of us dread the shorter days and cold weather that winter brings. But for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the change in season can cause a more significant mood shift and affect how they feel, think and handle daily activities.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that comes and goes during certain times of the year. The most common form of SAD, fall-onset, starts in the late fall and goes away by the spring or summer. Some people call this “winter depression.” SAD can also occur during the spring and summer (spring-onset SAD), but is much less common.
The symptoms of SAD are the same as regular (nonseasonal) depression
- Feel depressed or “down” most of the time
- Lose interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Feel tired or like you have no energy
- Gain or lose weight
- Sleep too much or too little
- Feel guilty or worthless
- Have difficulty concentrating
- Feel sluggish, agitated or restless
- Have thoughts of death or suicide
If you ever feel like you might hurt yourself, or if you’re worried that a loved one might hurt themself, contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. To speak to someone, call or text 988. To talk to someone online, go to www.988lifeline.org/chat. Or call 911 for emergency service, or go to your local hospital emergency department.
Symptoms can vary depending on the type of SAD you have. People with fall-onset SAD usually:
- Sleep more than usual
- Have an increased appetite, especially for sweets or carbs
- Gain weight
People with spring-onset SAD often:
- Sleep less than usual
- Have a decreased appetite
- Lose weight
Effective treatment is available
If you think you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD, contact your healthcare provider. They may recommend one or more of the following treatments:
- Light therapy (exposure to bright light devices during the day)
- Antidepressant medications
- Counseling or psychotherapy
But there are also things you can do at home to help improve your symptoms:
Take daily walks outside. Being exposed to natural light, even on cloudy days, can help you feel better.
Stay physically active. Studies have found that aerobic exercise can improve SAD symptoms. Try to do something active for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.
Use a dawn-simulating lamp. Dawn-simulating lamps and alarm clocks emit light that gradually brightens before you wake up. These devices help create a light environment that mimics a summer morning.
Enhance your indoor lighting. During the day, make sure your home is filled with plenty of light, especially in the morning. Open your curtain and blinds and add lighting to rooms that seem a bit gloomy. You can also put a lamp with a timer in your bedroom. Set it to turn on early in the morning, before the sun comes out.
Improve your sleep hygiene. Because SAD often causes sleep disturbances, it’s important to develop healthy sleep habits. Try these tips for a good night’s sleep:
- Only sleep for as long as you need to feel rested
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day
- Exercise several times per week, but avoid exercising near bedtime
- Limit caffeine after lunch
- Avoid alcohol and smoking, especially in the evening
- Keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet
- Avoid using phones, tablets or other devices that give off light at least two hours before bedtime
- Don’t force yourself to stay in bed if you can’t fall asleep; instead, get out of bed and try again in a little while
Seasonal affective disorder is real, and there is real help for it. If you’re feeling any of the symptoms, reach out to your healthcare provider.
Published November 2022.