Seasonal Blues: Feeling SAD During the Winter

Seasonal affective disorder and winter blues are common and treatable

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

Although the holidays are usually a joyful time, some people feel sad, stressed or hopeless this time of year. Fortunately, these patients can take steps to feel better.

Many people struggle with the winter blues, especially as the day becomes shorter and daylight hours begin to disappear. For some, this sadness is a depressive disorder like seasonal affective disorder (SAD). For others, feeling down around this time of year is just situational — the holidays can exacerbate feelings of loss or loneliness.

Either way, anyone feeling sad around the holidays can and should get the help they need.

What Are Seasonal Blues?

Many people tend to feel like they're "in a funk" during the late fall and through the winter. If these feelings of sadness appear almost every year around the same time, it may be SAD.

SAD is a type of depression that only occurs at a specific time of year. Most people with SAD are affected during the fall and winter, but some have symptoms during the spring or summer. SAD is distinct from major depression because people with untreated major depression experience symptoms year-round.

"SAD represents an increased propensity to depression, triggered by changes in day length and light intensity," said Peter Strong, PhD, of the Boulder Center for Mindfulness Therapy in Colorado, in an interview with dailyRx News.

People with SAD may start feeling more lethargic, gloomy and irritable around a certain time of year. The winter is a common season in which SAD patients begin to feel depressed, perhaps because of the shorter days. Shorter days mean less sunlight, which might disrupt the body's internal clock and the production of mood-affecting chemicals like serotonin, says the Mayo Clinic.

These feelings may be especially noticeable during the holidays, which can bring social stress and cause people with SAD to become even more withdrawn.

"Seasonal sadness often results from familiar triggers that remind us of our childhood, which is often experienced with a sense of loss or sadness," Dr. Strong explained.

However, feeling emotionally drained during the holidays doesn't necessarily mean you have SAD or major depression. The hustle and bustle of the holidays can be exhausting for anyone. That's why it's important to talk to a doctor about your seasonal blues if they begin to interfere with your daily life.

Is Everything OK?

Even if you don't have excessive feelings of sadness around the holidays, someone around you might.

Although most cases of SAD and depression do not lead to self-harm, some do. You may become concerned if a family member, friend or co-worker expresses feelings of hopelessness.

Depending on your level of concern, you may want to encourage your loved one to seek medical help or talk to a therapist. After all, major depression and SAD are treatable conditions.

Where Can I Go for Help?

If your feelings of sadness are overwhelming or make it hard to go to work or school, talk to a doctor.

Your doctor may recommend attending therapy sessions that will help you develop ways to manage winter blues.

Although depression and SAD can be triggered by several factors, "the underlying mechanism that generates depression is itself psychological and the severity of the depression can be modulated through psychotherapy, mindfulness meditation and other psychological approaches," Dr. Strong said.

Light therapy, or regular exposure to a bright light box, may also improve your mood. Artificial sunlight may combat the changes in your brain chemistry brought on by the lower light of winter.

Your doctor may also suggest that you take antidepressants — either year-round or only during the time period in which you feel depressed.

Making lifestyle changes can be an effective treatment for the blues, too. Regular exercise increases the "feel-good" hormones in your brain. Eating a healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables may also lift your mood and raise your energy levels.

Review Date: 
December 19, 2014