The “Blue Christmas” Elvis sang about may have come from a broken heart, but even without romantic troubles, the winter blues are not uncommon. And watch out for their more dangerous cousin: seasonal depression.
Many of us feel more “low” during the winter months, which is very typical with the onset of colder weather, shorter days, and less sunlight. On top of whatever else we are dealing with, we can feel even more isolated during the cold and dark winter months.
But for some of us, the onset of winter brings a new set of challenges: seasonal depression symptoms. Seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD, or seasonal depression), is more than just feeling low. In fact, it is a form of clinical depression that typically occurs in the winter. (In some rare instances, it can occur in the summer, too, but is much more common in the winter.)
Who is at risk for SAD? In the U.S., it is estimated that about 500,000 people experience SAD in any given year, and about 10 to 20% more experience the less severe winter blues. It turns out that women are more likely to experience winter-pattern depression (four out of five people who have SAD are women) and it typically develops in young adulthood. Researchers have also found that SAD is much more common in northern areas — where there is less daylight during the winter months — or where it is more cloudy.
It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder as well as its risk factors so that you or your loved ones can recognize if it’s affecting you. There are several effective treatment methods available, so if you are wondering if you are experiencing seasonal depression, it can help to seek out professional treatment.
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder fall into two categories: typical symptoms of depression, and winter-specific symptoms of depression.
The typical symptoms of depression include:
- Depressed mood
- Lost of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up
- Feeling low-energy
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Trouble concentrating
- Thoughts of death or suicide (Note: If you are experiencing thoughts of death or suicide, please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 for help. There is hope!)
Winter-specific symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:
- Extreme tiredness
- Overeating (especially carbohydrates)
- Weight gain
- Social isolation/withdrawal
In order to be diagnosed with winter pattern seasonal depression (SAD), the major depressive symptoms must be experienced only during the winter months for at least two years in a row, and the symptoms must be more frequent or intense than other depressive episodes experienced during the rest of the year.
Why do some people develop seasonal affective disorder and others don’t? There are three main factors that researchers believe contribute to being at an increased risk for SAD:
- Changes in serotonin: Researchers believe that the mood-regulating neurotransmitter, serotonin, may not be regulated properly in individuals with seasonal depression. It is thought that sunlight plays a factor in maintaining ideal serotonin levels, but with the decreased sunlight during the winter months, some people might have difficulty maintaining those levels and so their mood is negatively affected.
- Too much melatonin: Researchers have also found that individuals with seasonal depression produce too much melatonin. Since melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate the sleep/wake cycle of your circadian rhythm, having too much melatonin during winter months can contribute to changes in your sleep/wake cycle — in other words, making you feel more tired and low-energy than usual.
- Vitamin D deficiency: Because vitamin D is thought to play a role in healthy serotonin levels, a deficiency in this vitamin may play a role in seasonal depression, especially because we produce Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight. With less sunlight during the winter months, it might be challenging to produce optimal levels of this vitamin, which can in turn affect serotonin production.
Fortunately, there are several effective treatment options for seasonal depression, including light therapy, psychotherapy, medication, and Vitamin D.
Light therapy has been found to be effective in 85 percent of cases for eliminating or reducing symptoms of seasonal depression. There are two recommended forms of light therapy. The first option is simply increasing the amount of time you spend in the sunlight (yes, this means bundling up and spending time outdoors). Exposing yourself to sunlight, especially in the morning hours, can help recalibrate your sleep/wake cycle.
The second option for light therapy is using a special kind of lamp that delivers a specific intensity of light (10,000 Lux) while blocking ultraviolet rays. Users place the lamp two to three feet away and eat or read in front of the lamp (you don’t have to look directly into the light). These lamps are easily found at major retailers and online for fairly affordable prices ($30 and up).
While most people find light therapy beneficial, individuals who have bipolar disorder or some other conditions (such as diabetes and those who take certain types of medication) should only use it at the recommendation and under the supervision of their health care provider.
In addition to light therapy, your provider may recommend getting your Vitamin D levels checked to see if you need to take supplements to correct any deficiencies.
If you seek professional help, your therapist can help you learn strategies to help you manage any mood changes or negative feelings, as well as make behavioral changes so that you can reduce or eliminate your symptoms. And in some cases, your provider might recommend that you take an antidepressant medication to help you reduce symptoms.
Feeling sad or low during the winter months doesn’t have to be a given. If you believe that you may meet the criteria for a diagnosis of winter pattern seasonal depression, it is important to meet with a mental health professional who can help create and guide you through a personalized treatment plan. There are effective treatments out there, and with some help from a mental health professional, you can make a plan to spend less of your time dreading the onset of winter and more time enjoying all that this season has to offer.
Please note: The information included in this article is meant for informational purposes only and is not meant to provide a diagnosis or treatment plan.