Dreading the Winter Blues?

Many people find themselves impacted by seasonal depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Read on to find out more about this all too common condition.


A few years ago, a friend began describing his “bizarre experience,” of feeling depressed each year around his birthday. Now, many people do find birthdays to be difficult for a variety of reasons, but what he described did not seem to be influenced by any obvious trigger. In fact, he typically looked forward to birthdays. As it turns out, his birthday in is early November, near the first Sunday of the month, better known as daylight savings time. 

So what’s the big deal here? 

It appeared that my friend maybe be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, ironically referred to as “SAD.” For those of you that may not know, SAD is characterized by depressed mood, irritability, fatigue (even when received more sleep), difficulty concentrating, increase in appetite and a general loss of interest in activities. It is a type of mood disturbance that presents during the change in seasons, typically late fall or early winter, and subsides during spring and summer months. There are rare cases in which the onset of SAD begins in spring and summer, but researchers are still working to determine the drivers behind such onsets.

When treating Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are two processes to consider; the biological and the psychological process.


It may come as no surprise that shorter days could result in significant mood shifts. After all, we know that sunlight promotes the release of the neurotransmitter Serotonin and Vitamin D, both mood boosters. Unlike other vitamins that are obtained through food, Vitamin D is naturally attained through a photosynthetic reaction triggered by sun exposure. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, those with SAD are suspected to have trouble regulating Serotonin, may experience a Vitamin D deficiency and possibly produce too much melatonin, as darkness promotes melatonin. A biological recipe for distress.


Just like the biological changes, the change in seasons can also prompt a psychological shift. Cognitive theories suggest that humans tend to move or feel in the way in which we think about things. From a cognitive perspective, it is imperative to be mindful of our reaction to the change in seasons. Unhelpful thoughts such as “it’s so cold, no one wants to be outside,” or “the next few months are going to be terrible,” deeply influence how we feel. These types of thoughts are considered “thinking errors,” catch the error and reframe the thought to something more productive, such as “even though it’s cold outside, I can still find ways to be active.” Finding value or understanding in each season is a productive way to shift thinking errors.

Treatment Recommendations for Biological and Psychological drivers of SAD:
  1. A light therapy lamp essentially creates faux sunlight. It’s recommended use is at the beginning of the day, approximately two feet away, for about 20-30 minutes. 
  2. Exercise. This can be a tough one. Exercise is already a challenge for many people, and it is obviously more difficult when fatigued, irritable and unmotivated. But a 2013 Harvard Medical School Newsletter outlined benefits to include decreased blood pressure, improved sleep, the release of endorphins, and even improvements in the brain’s hippocampus, an area suspected to play a significant role in depression.  So, what do you do if you lack the motivation? START SMALL with realistic, attainable goals. There’s nothing more de-motivating than failing an initial goal. So, start with an intention that is realistic. If that means going to the gym for 10 minutes, start there. 
  3. Sleep. Regulating sleep means attending to your body’s circadian rhythm. Imagine how out of balance it can become when a disruption in our sleep structure occurs. Even subtle shifts in our sleep can cause an increase in fatigue and a reduction in our energy levels. Try to set a structured sleep schedule and stick with it. Make sure to wake up early and at the same time each morning. When you rise early, you are increasing your exposure to natural sunlight.
  4. Talk to your physician. For many, modifying their environment and behavior is not enough. If you suspect you may struggle with SAD, talk to your doctor to determine if a Vitamin D supplement is necessary or if medication would be helpful.
  5. Psychotherapy.  And last, but certainly not least, therapy. Therapy is the only treatment method that addresses the psychological process of SAD. Changing the way think and experience life can be very challenging. Having the support and guidance from a trained professional is sometimes the only way to break through deep-rooted negative thinking patterns. 

Finally, remember that seasonal changes are the cycle of life. Perhaps we need the slowing down period, to “hibernate” and reflect. Dig deep and find gratitude in each of the seasons. How boring would life become if we only experienced one season? The changing seasons provides the contrasting experience we need to appreciate the fullness of life. 


Holleigh Woodward, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

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