Lower Temperatures and Lower Moods: What is Seasonal Depression?

By Erica Bobish, LSW

Seasonal Affective Disorder. Seasonal Depression. Winter Blues. We have a lot of names for the way the time of year may play into our mental health. As we approach colder weather, shorter days, and darker mornings, it’s not uncommon to start to experience lower moods. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is something that affects about 5% of the U.S. population, and around 20% of the U.S. population will experience milder symptoms of seasonal depression, which are usually what is referred to as “winter blues”.

Symptoms of SAD may vary person to person, but most commonly folks who experience winter SAD may feel any combination of the following:

  • Not getting excited about activities or hobbies you’d normally enjoy

  • Fluctuations in appetite or weight

  • Insomnia, trouble falling asleep, oversleeping, or difficulty getting up in the morning

  • Feeling easily irritated or annoyed

  • Low energy, low motivation, trouble concentrating

  • Self isolating, withdrawing socially

  • Feeling hopeless or worthless

  • Thoughts of death or suicide

It’s important to note that although winter SAD is far more commonly experienced and talked about, some folks may experience seasonal affective disorder in summer. The symptoms look generally similar, but usually include higher anxiety levels, decreased appetite, and feelings of restlessness.

If you know that your mood is affected by colder weather and the winter season, you can work to combat it proactively. Vitamin D pills are an accessible, over the counter option to try to manage your symptoms. Another treatment option can be light therapy (also known as phototherapy), which consists of using a lightbox with full spectrum, fluorescent lighting for 30 to 45 minutes a day. This works to mimic sunlight exposure, in an effort to boost mood and increase vitamin D levels. A caution to light therapy: as this is an attempt to mimic sunlight exposure, be mindful of how much time is spent using it and be sure to use an SPF that will help block harmful UV rays that may increase the risks of skin cancer. If you have noticed symptoms of seasonal depression that have occurred for 2 or more consecutive years, consider talking with your primary care doctor or a psychiatrist about antidepressants or finding a therapist to help manage symptoms.

The winter season can feel intimidating, especially if you have noticed it affecting your mood and motivation. Even though SAD is commonly experienced, it doesn’t have to feel debilitating or unmanageable. Identifying patterns can help us prepare for what’s to come so we can feel more in control of our moods and decrease symptoms. Winter is indeed coming, but it doesn’t have to be scary!

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