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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
If you’ve felt your mood darken with the gloomy chill of winter, you’re not alone. Every year, about 15 million people in the United States report feeling the same way. Even the stock market seems to get winter blues––with dips in trading and smaller financial returns during the colder months (Kamstra, 2003).
No matter where you work or what you do, the winter blues are pretty much everywhere. The term refers to that inexplicable sad, tired feeling many people get when the seasons change, usually in late fall or early winter. Let’s take a closer look at the winter blues and see how it’s differs from conditions like seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
What causes the winter blues?
If you find yourself with the winter blues, it’s not you. There’s a scientific reason why seasonal changes impact on our moods.
Our bodies have something called a circadian rhythm, which describes chemical changes in our bodies in response to changes in our natural light and dark cycles. The system functions like an internal clock, telling us when we’re tired and when it’s time to start the day. Light exposure plays a big role in the system and when the days get shorter and the sun rises later, it can send our hormones into a tailspin. Levels of chemicals like melatonin and serotonin get out of whack and this can disrupt sleep and even lead to depression (Sohn, 2005; Willeit, 2011).
If that depression is severe enough to disrupt your day-to-day, it may require treatment. People with winter blues may notice mild mood changes during the winter but it usually allows them to continue functioning as normal. People with either condition find that winter blues and SAD symptoms often aren’t as severe on sunny days (Melrose, 2015).
Winter blues vs. SAD: what’s the difference?
Winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder are often used interchangeably, but it may be more accurate to consider them as two entities on the same spectrum. Both show sadness, fatigue, and other features of depression that appear seasonally, but SAD is the official diagnosis used by healthcare professionals.
The biggest difference between the two is SAD is more severe and impacts your ability to function in daily life. With SAD, you might find yourself sleeping so much it causes problems at work, or overeating to the point of noticeable and unhealthy weight gain. You may lose interest in activities you normally enjoy or even experience thoughts of self-harm. SAD has all the characteristics of major depression but occurs in a seasonal pattern (Westrin, 2007).
If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts or behaviors of suicide or self-harm, help is available for free. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Or text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor
How do you diagnose the winter blues?
The winter blues isn’t a diagnosis you might get from a healthcare provider, but if you find yourself experiencing these symptoms, seeking help is still a good idea.
A healthcare professional or mental health expert will do an examination and clarify your symptoms using tools like the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire. If you have mild symptoms that don’t fit a diagnosis of major depression, it’s likely you’re experiencing the winter blues (APA, 2013; Murray, 2003).
Still, treatment options for SAD can help even if you have a milder case.
Tips to beat the winter blues
The good news is the winter blues isn’t year-round––the feelings usually disappear once spring arrives. But spring can feel forever away, so what do you do until then? Here are some scientifically-proven ways to ease your symptoms while you wait for sunnier days.
Going outdoors regularly, even on winter days, gives you a chance to soak up some sunlight. You can do something as simple as taking a walk, trying a new outdoor winter activity like ice skating, or even do outdoor errands like shoveling snow. If you can’t be outside, even opening up the blinds and sitting by a window can help.
Exercise is closely linked to better mental health and fewer symptoms of depression. And if you’re a beginner, exercise doesn’t have something intimidating like high-intensity aerobics. You can walk, do yoga, lift weights, or anything else that keeps you active and gets your heart rate up (Ströhle, 2009).
What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
Eat a healthy, diverse diet
You’ve probably heard this one a million times, but it’s a classic for a reason. Eating a healthy diet helps support both physical and mental health.
Although the winter blues might have you craving more carbohydrates, carb loading doesn’t alleviate symptoms and may leave you feeling worse in the long run. Aim for a diverse, balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains (AAP, 2012; Yang, 2020).
Hang out with friends and family
Winter days can be isolating and spending more time with loved ones can lift your spirits. Even if you can’t be physically around people, communicating by phone or video chat can help you feel more connected to the ones you love.
SAD treatments such as light therapy can also help you kick the winter blues. For example, using a SAD lamp or lightbox provides more light exposure and helps make up for the lack of sunlight. One small study found that using bright light therapy for 20 minutes a day improved mood, increased energy levels, and decreased sleepiness (Meesters, 2016).
If these options haven’t helped or your symptoms worsen, talking to a mental health professional is often beneficial. Psychotherapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy can lessen symptoms of depression. In severe cases, medication combined with therapy may be recommended.
Using light therapy for seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
Dark, dreary winter days cause millions of people every year to experience the winter blues. The good news is that there are solutions—like exercise, a healthy diet, and outdoor time––to beat the winter blues until sunny spring days return.
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (2012). Getting outside, eating healthy foods help kids beat winter blues. Retrieved on Nov. 2, 2021 from https://www.aappublications.org/content/33/1/27.5
- American Psychological Association (APA). (2013). Seasonal Affective Disorder Sufferers Have More Than Just Winter Blues. Retrieved on Nov. 2, 2021 from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/02/seasonal-disorder
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Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.