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Why SAD is More than Just the “Winter Blues”

Most of us are probably familiar with the concept of the “winter blues”. It’s a theory that when the colder months approach, the accompanying environmental changes can trigger very sudden mood responses. And, during the winter season, these sudden fluctuations can have a serious impact on mental health.

Most people who experience these fluctuations chalk it up to the “winter blues”, and simply move on. However, what many individuals don’t realize is that they could be suffering from what is referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. This is a very serious and very real, recognized mental health disorder. SAD is a type of Major Depressive Disorder that follows a pattern, with intense bouts of depression occurring at the same time every year.

Still, many may pose the question: is Seasonal Affective Disorder real? Or, am I just experiencing minor mood swings? To properly analyze how seasons affect mood, and whether or not these shifts in our mental state may be a result of SAD, it’s essential to understand its signs, symptoms, and characteristics.

What are the Winter Blues?

When the seasons change, daylight hours are drastically reduced in many places. This can cause all kinds of disruptions to a person’s daily life, and can also result in sleeping issues. When this occurs, some individuals may suddenly find it much harder to get out of bed in the morning, or find the motivation to complete daily tasks. When experiencing these behaviors and feelings in late fall or winter, these reactions are collectively referred to as the “winter blues”.

However, they are usually temporary, and purely reactive to the winter’s presence. People who may be experiencing the winter blues are still able to achieve their basic functions and get by on a regular basis.

Some common symptoms of the winter blues include:

  • Feelings of sadness during the winter months
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Lack of motivation to complete some tasks but capable of handling major requirements like going to work and taking care of the house
  • Spending extended time in bed
  • Feeling “down and out”

While the winter blues is not considered a mental health disorder, there are still plenty of ways to treat its symptoms. Some of these strategies include:

  • Adopting a regular sleep routine – a proper sleep routine can help stabilize your internal clock and allow you to wake up feeling refreshed and energized instead of feeling fatigued throughout the day.
  • Seeking out sunlight To increase energy and mood levels, seeking sunlight even in the cold months is beneficial, especially to help regulate our circadian rhythm.
  • Exercise and a balanced diet – Exercise improves mood and energy by releasing endorphins. Even just 30 minutes a day can improve these levels, especially when outdoors if possible. This directly relates to a balanced diet. When our body feels good physically, it also feels good mentally. Foods that are rich in vitamin D such as fish, egg yolks, mushrooms, and milk can all provide necessary supplements.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, is a mental health disorder characterized by distressing and overwhelming feelings of sadness that can interfere with daily functioning. More specifically, the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) identifies SAD as a type of depression known as major depressive disorder (MDD) with a seasonal pattern. What differentiates SAD from the winter blues is that its symptoms are usually severe and debilitating. These symptoms generally become apparent in the fall and peak in the winter.

The most common symptoms of SAD include:

  • Overeating and weight gain
  • Craving unhealthy foods
  • Heavy difficulty sleeping
  • Depressed mood the majority of most days
  • Loss of interest in activities typically enjoyable
  • Withdrawal and isolation from loved ones
  • Inability to focus and concentrate on household tasks and work performance
  • General fatigue and lethargy
  • Feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts

SAD can be extremely severe and is not something to brush off as temporary. If you or anyone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it’s advised to seek out proper treatment. Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder requires treatment options that can include:

  • Antidepressants – Antidepressants are the medication of choice in the treatment of SAD, including citalopram, fluoxetine, escitalopram, sertraline, and paroxetine. Bupropion has also become a possible medication to treat those dealing with SAD who are unable to tolerate SSRIs.
  • Light Therapy – Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is often considered the introductory treatment for individuals with SAD. Light therapy and melatonin have been shown to improve signs and symptoms associated with SAD because they affect our circadian rhythms at different times of the day. This is achieved through the use of light boxes, which mimic outdoor light by emitting as little UV light as possible. Administering light therapy upon waking up and taking melatonin a few hours before bedtime has been shown to help regulate this rhythm and reduce symptoms.
  • Lifestyle Adjustments – Making changes to your routine can be used to alleviate the symptoms of SAD and the winter blues. However, while these adjustments are extremely important, they must be used in addition to another treatment such as light therapy or medication. Together, these changes can help significantly in the long run while still receiving a more targeted treatment.

Find Help Today

Retreat Behavioral Health has been providing quality care for mental health with truly personalized and comprehensive programs that are tailored to patient’s specific needs. From mental health and substance use services, to outpatient programs and tailored treatments, Retreat’s goal is to help people easily access the best quality of care in a holistic and peaceful environment. If you or someone you know may be experiencing SAD, or any other mental health condition, treatment is always the best option no matter the situation. 

Contact Retreat Behavioral Health today for any questions or comments regarding our services and programs.