Winter may kick off the holiday season, but for many these months can bring the melancholy tones of the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder.
As the days grow short and the sun disappears from the sky, many of us feel short on energy and motivation. But when this feeling of low energy and sadness affects your ability to function in other parts of your life, your simple case of the winter blues may not be so simple. If you’re feeling this way, you’re not imagining things and you’re certainly not alone. You may just be struggling with undiagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
What are the Winter Blues?
Roughly 15% of Canadian adults report experiencing the winter blues each year, which can be viewed as a seasonal case of sadness or melancholy. While these feelings don’t affect our ability to function at home, work or school, they can make it difficult to enjoy ourselves.
The winter blues is not considered a medical condition, namely because it doesn’t affect our ability to function. Even with the winter blues, we’re still able to get our work done, take part in activities we love, and enjoy time with loved ones. We just feel an undercurrent of sadness that leaves us feeling less than our best selves.
Signs you may have the winter blues include feeling:
- Low on energy
- Like you want to stay in bed all-day
- Trouble sleeping
- Low motivation (but still complete your responsibilities at work or at home)
It’s when these feelings begin affecting our ability to function and persist for longer than a few days at a time that a simple case of the winter blues escalates to seasonal affective disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is actually a type of depression, sharing in common many of the same signs and symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD). Seasonal affective disorder distinguishes itself from major depressive disorder by occurring in 4-5 month seasonal patterns. Luckily, seasonal affective disorder is relatively uncommon, affecting only 2-3% of Canadian adults each year.
What are the signs and symptoms of SAD?
While seasonal affective disorder may be triggered by different factors (circadian rhythm changes, melatonin and serotonin dysfunction, and more), its effects on us mirror those of major depressive disorder. The symptoms of SAD just ebb and flow in seasonal, 4-5 month patterns rather than persisting year-round, like MDD. We typically associate these seasonal low mood swings with winter, although some may experience summer-pattern SAD.
Signs of major depressive disorder that often present with SAD:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Having persistently low energy
- Feeling fatigued and sluggish
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Experiencing sleep problems (oversleeping; insomnia)
- Mood changes, irritability, agitation
- Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Experiencing changes in appetite and weight
- Feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day
- Experiencing frequent thoughts of self-harm, suicide, or death
Specific symptoms of winter-pattern SAD can include:
- Social withdrawal (similar to “hibernating”)
- Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
- Overeating (*with a particular craving for carbs)
- Weight gain
Specific symptoms of summer-pattern SAD may include:
- Feeling restless or agitated
- Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
- Experiencing episodes of aggressive or violent behaviour.
If you believe you’re experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, you don’t have to shoulder the burden alone. Reach out to us at Bhatia Psychology to schedule a time to chat.
What Causes SAD?
Researchers are still working to understand why some people experience SAD. Potential triggers may include dysfunction in circadian rhythms, melatonin levels, serotonin levels, and vitamin D relating to shifts in the weather and our body’s abilities to adjust.
Nicknamed “the body’s internal clock,” your circadian rhythm regulates your awake-sleep state in roughly 24-hour cycles. Our circadian rhythms are highly sensitive to light and dark, which prompts the release of certain hormones that adjust our metabolism and body temperature. These can make us more awake or draw us towards slumber. This natural process can lead to increased fatigue, sleepiness, and depression, especially for people who live up north and experience even shorter days with less direct sunlight.
Also known as the sleep hormone, melatonin helps regulate the sleepiness-inducing side of our circadian rhythm. Darkness stimulates melatonin production, meaning that as darkness comes earlier and lasts longer, we experience heightened production of melatonin that can leave us fatigued all day. Research suggests people with SAD may produce even higher levels of melatonin, making it difficult for them to adjust as seasons change.
On the flip side of melatonin is serotonin. It is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, emotions, appetite, and digestion. Research suggests people struggling with SAD produce lower levels of serotonin and that daylight helps maintain adequate levels of serotonin. So when winter hits, serotonin levels in people with SAD may plummet even further.
Vitamin D levels can help regulate and balance serotonin. Unfortunately, one of the fundamental ways we soak up vitamin D is through sunlight, making it difficult to support healthy serotonin levels in the winter. Losing vitamin D stores during winter can contribute to and worsen SAD.
The Difference between Winter Blues vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder vs. Depression
So what’s the core difference between winter blues, seasonal affective disorder, and depression? Simply put:
- The Winter Blues: reflect feelings of sadness and fatigue that accompany the seasonal shifts to winter that don’t affect our ability to function and live our lives.
- Seasonal Affective Disorder: is a clinical disorder characterized by extreme fatigue, hopelessness, and sadness that affects our ability to function. It is a subset of major depressive disorder that occurs for periods of 4-5 months following seasonal shifts.
- Depression: is a clinical disorder featuring persistent and extreme sadness, fatigue, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, and which significantly impairs our ability to function. Depression occurs regardless of seasonal shifts.
Treatment for the Winter Blues
If you’re stuck in the winter blues, never fear! The best way to combat the winter blues is by developing a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Below are just a few paths you can explore to help bring balance and happiness back to your life, despite these pesky shortened winter days.
- Develop a consistent evening and morning routine
- Daily movement or exercise practice
- Nutrition and a balanced diet
- Vitamin D supplements
- Keep close with loved ones
- Get outside and try to soak up as much sun during the day as possible!
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder
If you’re struggling with seasonal affective disorder, you are not alone. While the situation can feel hopeless and like control is out of your hands, there are ways you can work to reduce the impact shortened winter days have on your energy and mood.
- Antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that help regulate serotonin levels in depressive disorders can help treat SAD symptoms and boost mood.)
- Psychotherapy (cognitive behavioural therapy designed specifically for SAD uses talk therapy to disrupt unhelpful thought patterns. CBT-SAD uses a technique called behavioural activation to combat depression-based loss of interest.)
- Light therapy (dawn simulators could be helpful if you struggle with feeling energized and getting started in the morning!)
- Vitamin D supplements (because vitamin D helps regulate serotonin, taking additional supplements as advised by your care provider may help with mood shifts from SAD.)
If you’re looking for support in your journey to reclaim your life from seasonal affective disorder, we at Bhatia Psychology are here to help. You don’t have to go through this alone — reach out to schedule a time to talk today.