Seasonal Affective Disorder: When to Seek Treatment for the Winter BluesLast updated: Dec 05, 2016
As the days get colder and shorter, many of us begin to feel a little blue. But if your feelings of sadness begin to affect your energy level, concentration, ability to enjoy time with family and friends or your ability to work, it is time to get help. You may be among the millions of Americans who have seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
“The average person with the winter blues is not suffering. They may not like that it is dark out, but they are still socially active, productive at work, and can enjoy themselves,” explains James Korman, PsyD, ACT, a clinical psychologist and director of Behavioral Health at Summit Medical Group.
“SAD is a condition where people start to have symptoms similar to depression in the fall and winter when there is less light. They feel depressed, agitated, withdrawn, and lose pleasure in everyone and everything around them. Some individuals may even have hopeless or helpless thoughts.”
Symptoms of SAD usually begin in the late fall, become worse during the winter months, and resolve in the spring. SAD can also affect people in the spring and summer, however it is much less common.
The Symptoms of SAD
- Feeling depressed and irritable
- Sleeping more and having difficulty waking up
- Feeling tired and sluggish throughout the day
- Becoming antisocial and avoiding plans with family and friends
- Having less interest in your normal activities, including sex, exercise, and hobbies
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Gaining weight
- Experiencing increased appetite, particularly for starchy foods and sweets
“We look for seasonal patterns—individuals must experience this cyclical swing of symptoms for at least two winters to be diagnosed with SAD,” says Dr. Korman.
Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Behavioral health clinicians at Summit Medical Group can help. We offer:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – a type of counseling that teaches you skills to redirect your negative thinking into realistic positive thoughts and actions.
- Light therapy – sitting in front of a lamp that mimics the sun’s rays for 20 to 30 minutes each day, usually in the morning. However, talk with your health care provider before you purchase a light box as there can be side effects and treatment needs to be individually tailored.
- Medication – antidepressant drugs may reduce negative symptoms by increasing the level of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that is thought to be reduced in those suffering from SAD.
“If your symptoms are affecting your ability to enjoy things, your family, or your ability to work, it is important to seek treatment—you do not have to suffer for three or four months out of the year,” says Dr. Korman.
Ways You Can Help
- Spend time in the sunshine every morning — if it is too cold, sit near a window
- Exercise every day, preferably outside or at the gym
- Maintain a normal sleep schedule — go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
- Stay socially active — volunteer in your community or meet a friend for dinner regularly
- Eat healthy foods
“We all have a tendency to hibernate in the wintertime, but keeping your regular schedule of activities will lift your mood and make you feel more energetic,” says Dr. Korman. “Exercise is particularly helpful because it releases neurochemicals that make us feel happier, have more stamina, and control our appetite.”
Why SAD Occurs
It is unclear what causes SAD. Some research suggest that when the sun sets earlier, our circadian rhythm—the internal biological clock that tells us when to sleep and when to wake up—becomes disrupted and triggers feelings of sadness. As our exposure to light decreases, it is also thought to affect a chemical in the brain called serotonin, which regulates our mood.
You are more likely to experience SAD if you:
- Are female
- Are between the ages of 15 and 55
- Live further away from the equator
- Have a relative with SAD
- Have a history of depression or other mental illness
- Interview with James Korman, PsyD, ACT, Director of Behavioral Health at Summit Medical Group (12/1/16).
- American Psychiatric Association. “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” American Psychiatric Association. Web. 2 December 2016.
- Psychology Today. “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Psychology Today. 18 November 2015. Web. 2 December 2016.