Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder

Is your mood and energy so low this time of year that you think you could have winter blues or seasonal affective disorder? Read on to learn about the difference between the two, the symptoms, and coping strategies.


What is the difference between the winter blues and SAD?

With winter blues, you feel a temporary dip in energy and mood with the changing of the seasons. You may feel low emotions due to the cold and long, dark days. These emotions could lead to sleeping longer, watching more TV, and pulling away from friends and family. However, it doesn’t cause impairment in important areas of functioning. Just how most headaches aren’t migraines, having winter blues does not mean you have SAD.


What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) describes annual depression. SAD starts during autumn or winter and eases off in spring or summer. SAD is something a little different from the more common winter blues.

To be diagnosed with SAD, a mental health professional must check your symptoms and rule out alternate causes.

  • There must be a seasonal pattern to the onset and remission of major depressive episodes for at least two years.
  • The seasonal depressive episodes must outnumber non-seasonal ones. They also must persist for most of the day, every day, for at least two weeks.
  • The depressive episodes are not better explained by substance use, a general medical condition, bereavement, or seasonally-related psychosocial stressors (such as returning to school in the fall)
  • Increased cravings for high-calorie comfort foods, excessive sleeping, social withdrawal, and weight gain
  • Persistent feelings of sadness, stress, guilt, confusion, distractibility, and hopelessness. Tasks that were once simple may suddenly become overwhelming.


What causes SAD?

The exact cause of SAD is still debated. A commonly accepted theory is that people with SAD may struggle to regulate serotonin (a mood-balancing brain chemical) or overproduce melatonin (a hormone that signals “bedtime!” to the body). Decreased sunlight may reduce the body’s production of serotonin and increase its production of melatonin even more. Because the body’s internal clock naturally thrives on routine, such a disruption to it can be distressing (just ask shift workers!).

The absence of sunlight is not the only potential cause of SAD. Researchers have found that genetic factors may play a role. Most people who develop SAD have at least one close family member with a history of depression.

As well, women are significantly more likely to develop the condition than men. Of course, being a woman and having a family member who struggles with depression does not mean that a person will develop SAD. These factors could be better thought of as connections rather than causes.

Some professionals believe the cause of SAD could be explained by the idea that in colder seasons people spend less time outdoors


What helps SAD?

Healthy foods, physical activity, and supportive friends or family members are proven ways to manage mental health. Some other options are:

  • Self-compassion:

    People with SAD have a lower threshold for stress during the autumn/winter months. Looking for ways to reduce demands during this time of year is important. Remember, our best changes from moment to moment.

    Just because you can handle certain demands at one point in the year, doesn’t mean you “should” be able to handle those same demands at another. Practice self-compassion and restructure your work if possible. Maybe you can start later in the day, work shorter hours, decline extra projects, or ask others for more help during the darker months.

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy:

    Of the many styles of therapy, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most widely researched and recommended approach for treating SAD. CBT helps you to better understand and manage connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Challenging negative thoughts and behaviours to bring about more positive emotions can seem easy in principle, but requires effort. A therapist who practices CBT can be valuable when working to cope with SAD.

  • Light therapy:

    Light therapy involves the regular use of a specially designed light therapy box that mimics the natural light of the sun’s rays. The most effective light therapy boxes emit 10,000 lux (a measurement of light intensity). You need about 15 minutes to one hour of exposure per day. It is best used within one hour of waking up, and can also be beneficial when used mid-day.  You can place a light therapy box up to 2 ft. away, meaning you can do your usual morning routine while having the light on.

    The cost of such boxes has decreased in recent years, making them more affordable.  However, light therapy boxes may not be suitable for everyone. Negative side effects can include eye strain, headaches, agitation, and nausea. Insomnia may result from late-night exposure. It is important to do research and consult with your doctor before making the investment into a light therapy box.

  • Medication and supplements:

    Prescription medications or over-the-counter supplements such as vitamin D or 5-HTP could help. You can ask your doctor or pharmacist for more information.



The Family Centre services and resources that can help you cope with winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder:

ABCs for Depression Group Therapy

Living with Depression Class