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. Lori Ohrt, MSW, LISW, UnityPoint Health, explains how seasonal depression, formally known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), can affect your mood and what you can do about it.
What is Seasonal Depression?
"As the days grow shorter and the weather turns colder in the winter, many people find themselves feeling a little down," says Ohrt.
For some people, the sadness they experience is more than a temporary emotion. It's actually a symptom of SAD — a depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern that usually occurs during the winter months when there's less daylight. It's also a sub-disorder of seasonal depression.
Ohrt says SAD affects about five percent of people in the U.S., while approximately seven percent of people in the U.S. experience major depressive disorder. Research shows those who are younger, live in higher latitudes 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,” Ohrt 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.”
She adds, "Theories propose winter SAD is caused by decreased hours of sunlight affecting circadian rhythms (the natural body clock). Shorter days mean more time inside, less exposure to sunlight and a decrease in vitamin D."
Symptoms of Seasonal Depression
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
Can Seasonal Depression Happen in the Summer?
Experiencing seasonal depression in the summer is much less common than in the winter — but it happens. Ohrt says the reasons behind summer seasonal depression are still a puzzle.
"Theories include biological explanations, such as more sunlight causing a decrease in the production of melatonin (a hormone that affects sleep cycles). People with summer SAD frequently have insomnia or sleep problems, because they don't produce enough melatonin. Another theory suggests airborne pollens can affect mood levels."
Seasonal Depression Treatment
To offset the symptoms of seasonal depression, Ohrt 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
- Light therapy boxes can offer effective treatment, but talk to your provider before choosing one as certain types work better than others
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,” Ohrt 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, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988 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're experiencing depression, anxiety or any other form of mental illness. If in doubt, ask,” Ohrt says.