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Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder and the Winter Blues

There are steps we can take to alleviate winter dips in mood.

Key points

  • Many people experience low mood during the darker months of the year.
  • Awareness of our moods helps, along with exercising outside, connecting with other people, and improving our diet.
  • Some people suffer from “seasonal affective disorder” or “SAD,” when lifestyle modifications are not enough to prevent or remedy a dip in mood.
  • Specific treatments for SAD include using a “light box” to help boost mood with light.
Taryn Elliott/Pexels
Spring will come.
Source: Taryn Elliott/Pexels

Many people feel sad or depressed during the dark months of the year. Most people cope with the winter blues, but some are significantly disabled by their symptoms. For a minority, the pattern is reversed, and they have difficulty during the brighter months.

So, how can we cope with seasonal changes in our moods?

Noting Changes in Your Mood

The first step is to take note of your mood. Our moods can follow patterns that we fail to recognise unless we devote conscious attention to how we feel. Some people keep diaries. Others simply heighten their awareness of their moods. Some people rely on family members to point out significant changes.

Regardless of what approach we take, it is useful to keep an eye on changes in our moods that might indicate a need to change our behaviour. To ward off minor dips, it is helpful to exercise outside, connect with other people, watch our diet, and cut down on alcohol.

For most people, simple measures such as these, combined with an awareness of mood changes, is enough to get through the difficult weeks.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

For some people, lifestyle modifications are not enough to prevent or remedy a dip in mood. Some of these people suffer from “seasonal affective disorder” or “SAD.”

SAD is a condition that has many of the features of depression, but occurs chiefly or exclusively in winter. SAD is increasingly recognised as a significant problem for many people.

SAD commonly involves low mood, loss of enjoyment, and decreased interest in life, along with diminished energy, diminished sociability, and diminished interest in sex. These are all concerning symptoms that impact significantly on quality of life.

Unlike most people with depression, those with SAD are more likely to experience increased sleep and increased appetite, along with cravings for chocolate and high-carbohydrate foods (e.g., sugary food, white bread). These symptoms are the reverse of those commonly seen in depressive disorders.

Like depression, SAD is more common in women than men. With SAD, there is usually an improvement in the spring. One person in every three with SAD feels more energetic than usual in spring and summer.

Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder

The lifestyle measures recommended for minor mood changes are also recommended for SAD: sticking to a reasonable exercise pattern, having a good diet, reaching out to family and friends, and reducing alcohol intake. Taking these steps can be difficult, but they help.

Specific treatments for SAD include using a “light box” which provides light (2,500 to 10,000 lux) that is like sunlight, but without the ultra-violet rays. These devices should be used if recommended by a medical professional.

A light box is generally used for 20 to 30 minutes or more per day, depending on light intensity, ideally at breakfast time. Improvement can occur within a week, although anti-depressant medications are sometimes used, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (in adults).

The key to SAD is recognising when it occurs, and remembering that, no matter what else happens, spring will come.

References

Kelly B. Mental Health in Ireland: The Complete Guide for Patients, Families, Health Care Professionals and Everyone Who Wants to Be Well. Dublin: Liffey Press, 2017.

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