Seasonal affective disorder: Not just the winter blues

Posted by Jennifer Wickham, L.P.C.
January 15, 2015

Jennifer Wickham, L.P.C.

The holiday season has passed. In the Midwest, we are settling in for a few more months of cold weather. 

These months can be challenging. For some of you, the added stress of seasonal mood changes can be an unwelcome visitor.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of major depression that some people commonly suffer from in the late fall and winter months and, more rarely, in early spring. Research shows that the greater the distance you live north or south of the equator, the greater the incidence of SAD cases. In the United States, people are more likely to have SAD in the north than in the south. Those most likely to suffer from SAD are females and /or those who have a family or personal history of mood disturbance. SAD is uncommon, although not unheard of, in those younger than 20, and in older adults.

Common symptoms

  • Depressed mood (feeling  more sad, down or numb)
  • Irritability
  • Problems getting along with others
  • Fatigue and oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, such as craving high-carbohydrate foods
  • Weight gain

In early spring, symptoms may include:                                                                                                        

  • Depression
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Anxiety
  • Weight loss

If you suspect that you or someone you care about may be struggling with SAD, seeking help from a qualified professional is the first step to feeling better.

An evaluation by your health care provider or a mental health counselor is crucial. SAD can lead to serious complications, such as social withdrawal, school and work problems, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts or behaviors. 


SAD is thought to be caused by the seasonal change in exposure to light in our environment that occurs in the fall, winter and spring months. These changes may affect the amount of the hormone melatonin produced by the body in some people, resulting in abnormalities in neurotransmitters in the brain, such as norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. 

Melatonin, produced in the pineal gland of the brain and triggered by darkness, influences the sleep/wake cycle. In the cold winter months when we are more likely to stay indoors and daylight hours are shorter, increased melatonin production in those susceptible can increase the occurrence of SAD.

Serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain, is believed to have a role in regulation of mood. Serotonin levels also may decrease in response to a reduction in daylight hours, resulting in symptoms of depression. Some people experience an increased craving for carbohydrates during low-light months, as carbohydrates help generate serotonin production.

Treatment options

Treatment may involve:

  • Light therapy
  • Lifestyle changes to increase exposure to natural light
  • Individual and or group psychotherapy
  • Medications

There are many qualified physicians and mental health counselors to assist in finding the help you need.

Outpatient behavior health offers:

  • Individual assessment and evaluation for depression/SAD
  • Individual therapy using evidenced-based treatments
  • Support groups and classes
  • Referrals for medication management

We are here to help. It's not just the winter blues.

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