December 4, 2019

Not in the Mood for Winter? What to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder

young woman looking through the window on a rainy day

By Robert A Poarch

Some people see the changing of the colors of leaves in the fall as a reason to spend more time outdoors and to start getting excited about the festivities ahead. There are some who react to this time of year with drained energy and feelings of depression. The clinical name for this is seasonal affective disorder (SAD). By recognizing the symptoms, you may be able to have an enjoyable holiday season.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Sometimes called the “winter blues,” SAD is a form of depression that is generally triggered in the late fall (though it can also affect people during the summer) when there’s less natural sunlight during the day and it’s colder outside. SAD is more likely to affect women than men.

The cause of SAD isn’t clear. It may be that your “biological clock” is out of sync with the season, there could be a change in your serotonin levels (a chemical in your brain that affects your mood) or your level of melatonin levels (which affect mood and sleep patterns) are off. It could also be biological, there’s a family history of depression or bipolar disorder.

Symptoms of SAD May Include:

  • feeling depressed, hopeless, worthless and/or agitated
  • low energy
  • difficulty concentrating
  • change in appetite—eating more or less
  • difficulty sleeping, sleeping too much or too little
  • less interest in pleasurable activities
  • withdrawal from social activities
  • thoughts of suicide

Getting Out of the Slump

If you think you may be suffering from SAD, try increasing physical activities. Spend less time indoors by taking walks or runs, or try skiing or snowboarding. You can also be active inside walking on a treadmill or doing yoga.

Enjoying social time with friends is also likely to increase your spirits. Make an effort to connect and interact with people. The process of a social gathering, whether at your home or of someone else, takes your thoughts off of yourself.

When to Seek Help

If you’re experiencing some of these symptoms for a considerable length of time, like several days or weeks, and there’s a general loss of motivation, consider getting help from your primary care doctor for a diagnosis. They can recommend things you can do to treat SAD.

Phototherapy, or light therapy, is often a first treatment option. As the name implies, you sit in front of a special light box that mimics natural outdoor light. The thought behind this treatment is the light affects the chemicals in your brain related to your mood. Your physician can assist you in determining how often to use phototherapy and recommend what type of light might be helpful.

If you’re experiencing severe symptoms, your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant. This may take some time to work, and you should discuss any side effects with your primary care doctor.

Another SAD treatment option includes psychotherapy. The goal of the therapist is to help you identify the SAD thoughts and behaviors, and then learn managing and coping techniques to reduce the stress. Some options include yoga, meditation and guided imagery.

Establishing a relationship with a primary care doctor early helps you set clear health goals by focusing on prevention and wellness, and identifying risks even before they become noticeable.

To find a Mission Health primary care physician near you, call 828-213-3222 or visit