How to Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder

The winter blues are a real thing—and so are the summertime blues—with diagnosable symptoms and treatment options. Here’s a quick guide to when and where to get help.
Female throwing snow

When the seasons change and the winter months arrive, the waning sunlight and colder weather may trigger the onset of depressive symptoms for the part of the population that struggles with major depressive disorders and winter depression, known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and sometimes referred to as the "winter blues."

An estimated 10 million Americans are affected by the winter blues or seasonal depression. This generally occurs when the winter months crawl toward us and shutter the windows on our long summer days of daylight and fun. And although the cause is not known for certain, it's speculated that the presence of melatonin (the sleep hormone) is increased due to this lack of sunlight and vitamin D, thereby causing a constant sleepiness and lethargy.

In the article to follow, we'll explain seasonal affective disorder, and give expert recommendations and treatment options to help you get through the short, dark days of winter and manage your seasonal depression and winter blues.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, also known as major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, is a type of depressive disorder that is defined by repeated episodes of depressive symptoms that change with the seasons. Typically, the season most associated with the onset of seasonal depression is winter, though summertime episodes are also common.

Commonly referred to as the "winter blues," this form of major depressive disorder needs to have a recurring pattern of depressive symptoms that returns seasonally for two or more years. SAD is also a type of depression in which the depressive episodes happen more frequently than other forms of depression.

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a subtype of depression that's not clearly understood, but there are some biochemical markers that seem to correlate with the condition. First of all, the neurotransmitter serotonin is responsible for mood, memory and learning and it's clearly affected in people with SAD. Second, the sleep hormone melatonin will influence a person's circadian rhythms (sleep cycles) and is often produced in excess in people suffering from SAD because the brain produces more melatonin during periods of waning daylight. On top of that, vitamin D also fluctuates in our bodies based on sun exposure, and it plays an important role in the production of serotonin.

There are a number of clear risk factors that increase the likelihood of SAD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), some risk factors include being a woman, living a long distance from the equator, having a family history of depression and being younger.

What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder has very similar symptoms to depression, but the symptoms will vary based on whether a person experiences their seasonal depression in either summer or winter. Winter SAD symptoms often look like typical depressive symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Weight gain and increased appetite
  • Cravings for carbohydrates
  • Isolating from others

Summer SAD symptoms affect similar areas of a person's life and include:

  • Restlessness
  • Poor sleep
  • Weight loss and reduced appetite
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety

When should I get help?

Depressive symptoms can be debilitating: depressed mood, fatigue, difficulties enjoying hobbies and poor sleep can take a toll on a person. When you see that your depressive symptoms are affecting your functioning in important ways, it might be worth talking with your doctor or therapist about different options for treatment of SAD.

How can you manage Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The best approach to any kind of psychiatric or mental health concern is a health plan that's carefully tailored to each person. Treatment options for seasonal affective disorders include antidepressant medications, light therapy, psychotherapy and vitamin D. A person should consult a primary care doctor or a psychiatrist to start antidepressant medications, or light box and light therapies to help manage symptoms of depression and SAD.

Light therapies usually involve a light box or another light instrument that increase a person's exposure to bright light, which can help to reduce the melatonin that comes with the darkness of winter. There are many kinds of light therapies, but their effectiveness can vary based on the amount of time spent in front of the light box, the distance away from the light box, the angle of the light and the intensity of the light. So read carefully how to properly use each instrument. Ideally, light therapies are most effective and come with fewer side effects when their use is restricted to a limited morning session, about 30 minutes in length.

Alongside light therapies, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that can prove effective for managing seasonal depression and SAD symptoms. In CBT, a person identifies their negative thoughts and applies new thought patterns and coping skills to challenge those negative thoughts while also reducing undesired behaviors. So, along with light therapies and traditional self-care, CBT can really help people to re-approach winter depression and SAD with a healthier mind and a new outlook on winter.