Seasonal Affective Disorder vs. “Winter Blues”: Are They the Same?

It’s natural to feel a bit sluggish and sleepy during the winter. After all, the days are shorter, and cooler temperatures tend to keep us cooped up inside. But for many people, this “hibernation mode” may be a seasonal form of depression called seasonal affective disorder. So how do you know if what you’re experiencing is just a case of the “winter blues” or a mental health issue? Here are some signs to look out for.

The Winter Blues

Dreary winter days can leave us feeling tired and not very motivated. This is likely due to shorter daylight hours, which can interfere with our circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycles) as well as levels of serotonin and melatonin, which regulate moods and induce sleep, respectively. It’s not surprising, then, that the winter blues are characterized by feelings of sadness and lethargy, causing us to sleep more. Many of those who feel down during the winter find that they’re feeling less social than they do during spring and summer. The winter blues, however, don’t interfere with a person’s ability to function.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Suffering from seasonal affective disorder is more serious than the winter blues. The two most common indicators of SAD are overeating and oversleeping. People who have seasonal depression may experience negative emotions for most of the day, feeling hopeless and sometimes even suicidal. They tend to withdraw from family and friends and lose interest in activities they normally enjoy. If you constantly feel lethargic and have difficulty concentrating at school or work during the colder months of the year and seasonal disorder may be the culprit. Symptoms are persistent and can be severe enough to interfere with your work, relationships, and daily activities.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment

SAD treatment may include 30 – 60 minutes a day of light therapy, usually in the morning. You can purchase a lightbox that mimics natural light and can help reset your internal clock. Many people report that their symptoms improve with lifestyle changes such as spending more time outside, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet that includes sources of Vitamin D.

If lifestyle adjustments don’t help and your symptoms persist or intensify, it may be time to seek professional help. South Sound Behavioral Hospital offers comprehensive mental health treatment services that may include in-patient or partial hospitalization and outpatient therapy. Contact us to schedule an evaluation.