Dealing with the Winter Blues

Dealing with the Winter Blues

Winter weather got you down? It’s not just you. Some people look forward to January weather, when they can put their feet up by the fireplace and drink hot chocolate while they watch the snow fall. But for others, the time of year when the days grow shorter and darker can mark the onset of depression.

About six percent of people in the U.S. are affected by a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. This type of depression can be every bit as serious as major depressive disorder (MDD), with one key difference–while MDD isn’t dependent on changing seasons, SAD usually starts in the fall and becomes worse in the winter months. Then, once spring rolls around, your depression goes into remission and you feel like your usual self.

If you notice some of these symptoms along with major changes in your mood every wintertime but your doctor doesn’t diagnose you with depression, you might still have a form of SAD. Researchers estimate that an additional 14 percent of U.S. adults deal with a milder type of SAD often called “the winter blues”. It is also possible (although less common) for SAD to affect you in the summertime instead, causing insomnia and anxiety during the warmer months.

Just like people with MDD, people with SAD may experience feelings of sadness or hopelessness, lack of energy, loss of enjoyment in the activities they once loved, and sometimes thoughts of suicide. There are a few symptoms, however, that seem to occur more often in people with depression that lifts and settles with the seasons. People with SAD tend to sleep too much, gain weight from eating foods high in carbohydrates, and notice a heavy feeling in their arms and legs.

Researchers are still trying to understand the specific causes of SAD, but they have identified several different factors that may explain this seasonal form of depression. Loss of sunlight seems to be the biggest culprit messing with the brain chemistry of those affected. When your body receives a smaller daily dose of sunlight in the winter, your circadian rhythm (biological clock) can become disrupted. The circadian rhythm is responsible for telling the body when to sleep and eat–and the signals it sends depend on how much light it receives. If you don’t receive the light your biological clock needs during the winter, your body’s clock may produce too much melatonin and not enough serotonin, triggering depression.

SAD may also be linked to your genetics–meaning that if you have a history of depression, you are more likely to develop SAD than someone who does not. People who suffer from bipolar disorder, younger people, women, and anyone who lives far from the equator is at an increased risk for developing SAD.

While it can be incredibly frustrating when your mood begins to spiral every time the leaves begin to fall, the good news is that there are effective treatments for people with SAD. One of the most common and effective treatments for this type of depression is light  therapy or phototherapy, during which you are exposed to a type of light that mimics natural light to adjust your circadian rhythm. About 60-80{2997f8544d703ffd995cbf0748d9148f9150b33c2eb54c93a5197645ffc3f066} of people with SAD notice an improvement in their symptoms after trying light therapy, usually within only two to four days of treatment. Light therapy treatments often take place in the morning, when they are believed to be most effective, and last between 30 and 90 minutes. TMS can also be an effective treatment for SAD, as well as psychotherapy and antidepressants.

In addition to the treatment prescribed by your doctor, making some minor lifestyle changes may help you ward off the symptoms of SAD. It is important to make sure you are getting enough sunlight every day, even in the dead of winter. Make sure you keep your blinds open and sit near the window if possible during the day. Better yet, get outside during daylight hours. Taking a walk when you get up in the morning can help you get your daily dose of sunshine. Exercise helps too–don’t forget to go to the gym, even if the winter weather is making you feel drowsy.

Most importantly, if you think you might have SAD, don’t ignore your signs and symptoms. The sooner you tell your doctor about what you’re experiencing, the sooner you’ll be on track to finding a treatment that will help you beat your seasonal blues.


While TMS is not usually used to treat SAD, if your symptoms persist despite trying light therapy and other treatments, contact TMS Neuro Institute to find out if TMS therapy is right for you.