Feeling SAD? How to Combat Seasonal Depression

Sad depressed looking man with a window reflection of himself

Feeling down or discouraged happens to the best of us. But having a case of the winter blues you can’t shake might need more attention. Michelle Takes, MS, LMHC, UnityPoint Health, explains how seasonal depression, formally known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), can affect your mood and what you can do about it.

Symptoms of Seasonal Depression

Depressive disorder with seasonal pattern is a sub-disorder of major depression. Approximately seven percent of people in the U.S. experience major depressive disorder. Of that seven percent, roughly 10-20 percent present with seasonal depression. Research shows those who are younger and female are at a higher risk.

“Because the exact cause of seasonal depression isn't known, it's difficult to say exactly why women are three to four times more likely to experience seasonal depression than men,” Takes says. “There's some speculation around hormonal causes and genetic predisposition for women versus men; however, it's also notable that women more often seek treatment for issues, such as depression, than men, which may impact the data.”

The signs of seasonal depression closely follow those of major depression, but they generally have a pattern of taking place during fall and winter. Symptoms of seasonal depression may include:

  • Low mood or loss of interest in things usually enjoyed
  • Lack of motivation
  • Significant changes in sleeping patterns
  • Significant changes in eating patterns or weight changes
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Repeated thoughts of excessive worry, guilt or death

Seasonal Depression Treatment

To fight the symptoms of seasonal depression, Takes offers the following measures for good self-care:

  • Adequate calorie intake, rest and exercise
  • Build positive experiences into this time of year
  • Have a good support network of family and friends, and use that support network
  • Talk about feelings, and try not to bottle them up
  • Balance stress

For some, medication may be a treatment option, and a primary care provider or psychiatrist can help with assessing medication needs.

“As soon as someone feels seasonal depression symptoms are disrupting his/her typical routines or day to day functioning, it’s time to contact your primary care provider. It’s never too soon to talk with a provider about how you're feeling. The sooner the intervention, the better the outcome,” Takes says.

A primary care provider is able to screen and refer patients to mental health providers and services. Additionally, for children and adolescents, talking with a school counselor may be another good step. Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should go to the emergency room or call 911 for immediate assessment and safety.

“I discourage too much self-diagnosing or Internet searching, due to some unreliable information that can be posted. However National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a trusted resource for information for seasonal depression. Overall, I’d recommend seeking professional support, if you feel you might be experiencing depression, anxiety or any other form of mental illness. If in doubt, ask,” Takes says.