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Is it seasonal affective disorder or the winter blues?

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger

A woman stares out of a woman thoughtfully while snow falls

It’s that time of year again, when the clocks have fallen back and we’ve “gained” an hour. But for people like me, the extra hour isn’t worth the fatigue and overall blah-ness that come with it.

It’s not that I dislike fall or winter. It’s just that it’s really, really dark. After I wake up, it’s dark for three more hours; by the time I go to bed, it’s already been dark for twice that long. I start to feel the effects come mid- to late fall, but at least I have the chaos of the holidays to distract me. Come January, that’s when my mood really takes a turn for the worse.

If any of this sounds familiar, read on—you may just have a case of the winter blues, but there’s a possibility you’re up against seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Is seasonal affective disorder a real diagnosis?

Seasonal affective disorder is a legitimate form of depression with a seasonal pattern. The winter blues, on the other hand, present as a milder form of SAD symptoms stemming mostly from lifestyle factors, like staying indoors most of the time, not being active, and using devices too much.

It can be easy to pass off SAD as insignificant—or even fake—because the winter blues are so common. More often than not, people who think they have SAD are just struggling with the winter blues, which can be fixed with a few tweaks to your routine. For instance, getting some daylight first thing in the morning, limiting screen time at night, and regulating your sleep schedule can make a huge difference in how you feel.

SAD has a lot to do with the biochemical processes of the brain. Fewer daylight hours and less sunlight during fall and winter can affect production of serotonin and melatonin, two hormones that help regulate your body’s daily rhythm to maintain a normal day-night cycle.

For many people, this leads to a low mood and more fatigue than usual. The severity of SAD symptoms can also vary depending on how vulnerable a person’s genes make them to the disorder, where they live in the world, and their biological sex. Research shows that females are at a higher risk than males of developing this disorder.1

Spotting the signs of SAD

When the nerve cell pathways in the brain that regulate mood don’t work the way they should, it can lead to depression. In the case of SAD, symptoms typically begin in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. 

Here are some common signs and symptoms to look out for:

  • Sleeping too much
  • Having trouble falling asleep
  • Increases in appetite or cravings for certain foods
  • Weight gain associated with overeating
  • Mental and physical fatigue
  • A loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Social withdrawal or loneliness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • A sense of hopelessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Guilt or shame
  • Thoughts of suicide

It may take a while for your doctor to diagnose SAD because it can mimic other conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, an underactive thyroid, low blood sugar, viral illnesses, or other mood disorders. There’s also a summertime version of SAD, although it’s much less common. Experts believe it’s caused by longer days, increased heat and humidity, and possibly greater susceptibility to allergies.

If you think you might have SAD, don’t ignore it. Mood swings associated with this disorder can become more severe over time, affecting the way you think, feel, and behave.

How to treat SAD

Considering how many people who think they have SAD actually have a case of the winter blues—and because true cases of SAD can be hard to diagnose—getting back to a healthy state of mind can be tricky.

Most people experience mild symptoms that can be treated with some basic lifestyle changes, as described above. But some people require more specialized treatments, especially if they have other mental health concerns. Standard treatment methods for SAD include:

Light therapy, which involves exposing the eyes to full-spectrum or natural light for a certain amount of time every day. You can do this by heading outdoors during daylight hours or by using artificial light. According to one study, a single light therapy session lasting 20 minutes can lead to an immediate improvement in mood.2

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which typically involves working with a therapist to develop the necessary skills and strategies to cope with mood changes related to SAD. This requires more time and commitment than going outside or buying a special lamp, but one study found that CBT was more effective than light therapy at treating people with SAD.3

Medication, which requires talking with your doctor or therapist. In some cases, SAD may be treated with antidepressants.

Try to practice healthy habits

Whether you’re experiencing the winter blues or SAD, it helps to be proactive about your own care. Start small: Step outside in the morning to get some sunlight. Consider buying a “happy lamp,” which simulates natural daylight to help regulate your circadian rhythm. Don’t beat yourself up for staring at screens too much, but try to turn them off at least half an hour before going to bed.

Exercise and socialization are two other powerful mood boosters you can add to your routine. Physical activity is a natural stress reliever, and spending quality time with others can help fend off loneliness. You could combine the two by inviting friends or family to join you for an activity, like bowling, bike riding, or going for a walk.

It’s not always easy to take these steps in the middle of a long winter, but they’ll make a big difference. Remember: Progress, not perfection.

If you’re having an especially hard time this season, consider talking with a therapist who can help you bounce back. Browse our directory to find a licensed professional near you.

Winter comes along like clockwork, and for some of us, it’s really, really long. But good mental health shouldn’t be seasonal. You deserve to feel well all year round.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.