Seasonal Depression: What is it and How Can You Treat it?

Feel a bit sad this time every year? You’re not alone. Roughly 10 to 20 percent of Americans report feeling tired or sad in the winter months, and studies show seasonal affective disorder is four times more common in women than men. First described in the 1980’s, seasonal depression is characterized by recurrent depression that occurs annually at the same time each year. Medical research hasn’t discovered one particular cause of these “winter blues,” also known as "seasonal affective disorder" (SAD). With that said, researchers agree people who suffer from it have one thing in common, they're particularly sensitive to light, or the lack of it. Some other factors that may come into play include:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a decrease in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Warning Signs and Symptoms:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Feeling low energy
  • Having problems sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

How to Treat It:

Light Therapy
Many studies have shown that people with seasonal affective disorder feel better after exposure to bright light. Bright light – generated by a special light box that's much brighter than a normal lamp – is proven to work and gives off light that mimics natural outdoor light. Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, easing SAD symptoms.

Get Outside
Avoid “cabin fever.” Spend some time outside every day, even when it's cloudy or cold and especially in the morning light. The effects of daylight and fresh air can still help.

Develop Wintertime Hobbies and Interests
Discover something that you start to look forward to each year during winter. Whether it’s joining a winter book club or treating yourself to a new weekly puzzle or movie release, keeping your body and your brain active and optimistic goes a long way in preventing depression from getting worse.

If you feel depressed, fatigued and irritable the same time each year, and these feelings seem to be seasonal in nature, you may have a form of SAD. Talk openly with your doctor about your feelings.

How We Can Help

ACCESS can help you locate support groups or speak to your provider and behavioral health consultant who can give you the added support you need.

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As of November 12, 2022