Darker, colder days can lead to the “Winter Blues.” 

While this general feeling of weariness and melancholy is not uncommon, for a small percentage of us, it goes beyond the odd Blue Monday or Blue Christmas. When your winter blues feel more like depression, it could be related to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Today, we offer a clinical explanation behind the winter blues.

What is SAD?

SAD was recognized as a clinically diagnosed condition in the 1980s. According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 5% of all Americans experience symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

For some, the reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter disrupts their “internal clock” and reduces serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood, sleep, and appetite. It is produced by the body and is also found in some foods. Serotonin levels can be low in people with depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders. Reduction of serotonin is believed to be related to SAD symptoms, which include:


  • Feeling sad and listless most of the time
  • Losing interest in favorite activities
  • Reduced energy
  • Feeling sluggish
  • Oversleeping
  • Cravings for carbohydrates
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or worthlessness
  • A lack of will to live or, in severe cases, suicidal thoughts

What Causes SAD?

One theory is that it may be caused by a disruption in the body’s natural circadian rhythms, which regulate sleep and wakefulness. Exposure to sunlight helps to keep these rhythms in sync, and during the winter months, people tend to spend less time outdoors. As a result, their bodies may not receive enough sunlight, which can lead to feelings of depression. 

Another theory is that SAD may be caused by an imbalance in the brain chemical serotonin. Serotonin levels are known to fluctuate with changes in light exposure, and a reduction in serotonin activity has been linked to symptoms of depression. 

Treating SAD

Light therapy or phototherapy is used to treat SAD. 

Light therapy reduces symptoms by improving circadian rhythm and balancing serotonin levels. In more severe cases, light therapy is part of a treatment plan that includes antidepressant medication and psychotherapy. 

Psychotherapy is a non-invasive treatment for depression disorders like SAD. It allows you to develop coping strategies to change thinking and regulate emotions. Psychotherapy is often called talk therapy and involves regular talking sessions with a psychotherapist.

If you find your winter blues are more intense or you recognize the symptoms of SAD, it is important to receive treatment to help you cope.

Samaritan Counseling Center

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