Seasonal affective disorder: Understanding and coping with the winter blues

by Sammy Taylor

Last updated Feb 15, 2023

As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, many people start to feel the effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is also known as the "winter blues." SAD is a type of depression that occurs at the same time each year, starting in the autumn and continuing into the winter months.

Symptoms of SAD include:

  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness.
  • Decreased energy and motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
  • Loss of  interest in activities that were once enjoyable.

These symptoms can be debilitating and can significantly impact a person's quality of life.

While the exact cause of SAD isn’t known, it's thought to be related to changes in the amount of sunlight that we're exposed to. Our bodies rely on sunlight to regulate our circadian rhythms and the production of certain chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin and melatonin. When there’s less sunlight, these processes can become disrupted, leading to the symptoms of SAD.

It's essential to know that SAD is a real medical condition that requires professional help. It can be treated with a combination of therapies, including light therapy, psychotherapy, and medication. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a light box that emits bright light, which mimics natural outdoor light and can help regulate the body's natural rhythms. Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are also commonly prescribed for SAD treatment.

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, can help you learn to recognise and change negative thought patterns and behaviour patterns that may be contributing to your symptoms.

It's important to seek professional medical advice if you think you may be experiencing symptoms of SAD. With the right treatment, you can manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

How do I know if I have SAD?

Although SAD can affect everyone individually, here are some common symptoms of SAD to look out for:

  1. Low mood or feelings of hopelessness. People with SAD may feel sad, anxious, or hopeless, especially in the morning. They may have difficulty getting out of bed or have a lack of motivation to do things they normally enjoy.
  2. Loss of interest in activities. SAD can cause a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed, such as hobbies, socialising, or sex.
  3. Changes in appetite and weight. Suffering with SAD may cause people to overeat and gain weight, or completely lose appetite and lose weight.
  4. Changes in sleep patterns. SAD can cause insomnia or excessive sleepiness. People may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or they may sleep more than usual.
  5. Fatigue and low energy. People struggling with ‘winter blues’ may feel tired and have a lack of energy, making it difficult to do daily activities.
  6. Difficulty concentrating. SAD can cause problems with concentration, memory, and decision-making.
  7. Social withdrawal. People suffering with SAD can withdraw from social activities and become isolated from connecting with others.
  8. Suicidal thoughts or self-harm. SAD can cause feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, leading to suicidal thoughts or self-harm.

SAD facts

Did you know?

  • Seasonal Affective Disorder is not the same as the "holiday blues" which many people may experience due to the stress and added pressure of the holidays. It's a real medical condition that requires proper treatment.
  • People may be more susceptible to developing SAD if they have a family history of depression or if they live in a location with long, dark winters.
  • SAD is diagnosed based on a pattern of symptoms that occur at the same time each year. If you've been experiencing symptoms of depression for at least two consecutive winters, you may have SAD.
  • Not everyone experiences SAD the same way, some may experience a "reverse" SAD and experience symptoms during the summer. This is known as "summer-onset SAD"
  • While light therapy is commonly used to treat SAD, it’s not recommended for everyone as it may cause eye strain and agitation in some people. Also, it's essential to consult a professional before using a light box as they need to be used under professional guidance
  • People may find relief from SAD by taking a vacation to a sunny location during the winter months. Even a short trip can provide enough sunlight to reduce symptoms.

Managing SAD symptoms

Self-care strategies can be an effective complement to professional treatment for SAD. Here are some self-care strategies that people can try to help manage their symptoms:

Light therapy.

As mentioned earlier, light therapy can be effective in treating SAD by exposing the person to bright artificial light to mimic natural sunlight. There are two types of light therapy: natural and artificial. It’s recommended to absorb natural light for 15-20 minutes per day, even on cloudy days. Whereas artificial light therapy can be done for about 30 minutes to an hour per day, and it's best to do it early in the morning.

Get regular exercise.

Exercise can boost mood and energy levels. Even if you don't feel like it, try to get some physical activity, such as going for a walk or a jog. You’ll feel better for it.

Keep a regular sleep schedule.

Establish a consistent sleep schedule and make sure you are getting enough rest.

Eat a healthy diet.

Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help support overall health. A good goal is to try and eat 30 different types of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds each week.

Stay connected.

Stay connected with friends, family, and loved ones. Try to schedule social activities even if you don't feel like it. Feeling connected is a key pillar for a healthy mind.

Try relaxation techniques.

Yoga, meditation, deep breathing and other stress-reducing activities can be beneficial.

Consider using aromatherapy and essential oils.

Scents like lavender, lemon, and peppermint help with stress-relieving and mood-lifting benefits.

Keep a journal.

Tracking your mood and symptoms can be helpful. It can also be beneficial to look back on your journal to see what kind of situations or activities make you feel better or worse.

Seek professional help.

If your self-care strategies aren't working, it may be time to seek professional help.

It's important to remember that everyone is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. It may take some experimentation to find the right self-care strategies that work for you, but it's important to stick with it and not give up hope.

Written by:
Sammy Taylor
Sammy founded in 2019 whilst preparing for brain surgery as a way of incorporating daily motivational messages and inspiring a positive mindset despite hardships. Her mission is to inspire, empower and support others to overcome setbacks and challenges, and change negative mindsets towards events which are out of our control.


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