How to know if it's not just the winter blues

Know whether you are suffering from the winter blues or seasonal affective disorder, something more serious.

With shorter days, longer nights, colder temperatures and sometimes just the thought of the holidays, fall can be associated for some with a tanked mood. This article will help you understand whether you are just struggling with the winter blues or something more serious: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that most commonly sets in the fall or winter months.

Less frequently, it affects people in the spring or summer months, but is most often associated with the longer nights and shorter days of the autumn and winter. 

How can I tell if I have SAD?

If you are feeling the winter blues set in, it is worthwhile to ask yourself whether you could be struggling with something more serious such as SAD so that you can get help and start to feel better.

Some symptoms of SAD to look out for include:

  • Experiencing a depressed mood most of the time, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having difficulty sleeping, or sleeping too much
  • Eating more than usual, or not enough
  • Experiencing low energy
  • Having problems with your attention or concentration
  • Experiencing thoughts of suicide or feeling like you would rather not be alive
  • Losing interest in activities you once may have enjoyed
  • Feeling more anxiety or tension than usual, with increased irritability
  • Having a decreased libido

    These symptoms have to occur for more than just one winter in order to qualify for a diagnosis of SAD.

    Who is susceptible to SAD?

    The main age of onset of SAD is between eighteen to thirty years. Approximately three out of every four sufferers of SAD are women. SAD impacts people living in both the northern and southern hemispheres, but has found to be extremely rare in those living near the equator.

    Geographical location can impact the severity of the disorder. There is also a likely genetic vulnerability to SAD, so if one's family members suffer from SAD, the probability for someone to have SAD is increased.

    What causes SAD?

    While many factors are related to the development of SAD including neurotransmitters, genetic predispositions, psychological variables and circadian rhythms, the hormone melatonin has been found to play a large role in SAD. Melatonin is involved with sleep, has been linked to depression, and is produced in greater quantities in the dark. Longer nights and shorter days therefore lead to increased amounts of melatonin. 

    How is SAD treated?

    Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, has been demonstrated to be effective for some sufferers of SAD. Special florescent lamps can be purchased to increase one's exposure to light. Proper treatment involves working with a professional to determine appropriate administration of phototherapy. Long walks during the day in the sunlight can also be effective, however, this may not be feasible for many who work traditional jobs in offices.

    Physical exercise in general can be helpful as well.

    Other options for treatment include antidepressant medication or psychotherapy.

    It is most important to know that SAD is treatable. If you feel like your winter blues may actually be SAD, find a mental health professional to help you feel better as soon as you can. 


    American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

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