senior man stands solemnly outside in a coat and scarf during winter

Extended winter blues could be SAD

If colder weather and shorter days put you in a funky mood, you might try to shrug it off as “winter blues.” But it could be more than that – especially if you feel this way every winter and the mood lingers for weeks or months.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. It primarily strikes in the fall and dissipates in the spring.

The end of Daylight Saving Time, which usually occurs about November 1, generally signals a rise in SAD diagnoses.

The American Psychiatric Association estimates 5% of adults in the United States are affected. The majority of people who have SAD are women in their child-bearing years. But according to Marybeth Evans, a licensed clinical social worker for OSF HealthCare, “it can affect anybody, mostly from adolescence on. Children and older adults can get it.”

Sunlight plays a major role

Family medical history and your geographic location may contribute to SAD, which is less common closer to the equator. But biology plays a major role.

SAD occurs when certain chemicals in our body get out of balance. These particular chemicals – serotonin and melatonin – both play a role in our sleep-wake cycles. Both are also affected by the amount of sunlight we experience.

Serotonin is known as the “happy chemical,” because it helps us feel good. Serotonin increases with sunlight and signals our body to wake up and get moving.

Melatonin is a hormone that increases with darkness and signals our body that it’s time to rest.

They work together to create our circadian rhythm, which is our internal, biological clock. When working properly, we have a healthy sleep-wake pattern and tend to be energetic and productive. When it’s off kilter, our sleep becomes irregular, and we become prone to depression.

Symptoms to watch for

Symptoms of SAD can be mild or severe. They can range from simple fatigue to frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

Some symptoms might seem strange. For example, the American Psychiatric Association says you could feel fatigued because you sleep too much. Other symptoms may include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Disinterest in normal activities
  • Extensive daily depression
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Low energy
  • Overeating

Commit to physical activity

young woman with afro and scarf takes a winter walkMarybeth said the most important thing is to be aware of your feelings and commit to being physically active.

“Sometimes, people want to hibernate like a bear. That’s not really recommended because that can make it harder for you to function during the day,” she said. “Do those things that make you feel better during the warm months – keeping active, eating right, keeping a regular sleep schedule.

”We encourage people to get out there and be in the sun when you can.”

If that doesn’t help you feel better, or if you are unable to force yourself do those things, seek professional help, Mary said.

When and where to seek help

Immediate resources are available. OSF SilverCloud is a free interactive app that can help you manage your feelings. Or call 1-833-713-7100, and an OSF Behavioral Health navigator can direct you to specific services. You can also contact the national Crisis Text Line by texting “SIGNS” to 741741 for anonymous, free crisis counseling. If you have thoughts of harming yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

“If you can’t do your regular activities, if you can’t get up for work or you can’t attend to your children or feel happy about anything, if you lose your sense of pleasure in life – that’s basically what depression does,” Marybeth said. “At that point, anybody should seek counseling.”

Last Updated: June 1, 2021

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About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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Categories: Mental Health, Preventive Health