Is it the holiday blues, or Seasonal Affective Disorder?

During the winter, the shorter days and lack of sunshine, coupled with the losses we may have experienced during the pandemic, can make us feel sad or even depressed. But how do you know if you’re just feeling the blues, or if it’s Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that lasts for a season, usually in the fall and winter months, and disappears during the rest of the year. For some, the symptoms are brief. But for others, the symptoms can be disabling. A person who is experiencing SAD may:

  • Feel depressed most of the day, almost every day.
  • Lose interest in activities they once enjoyed.
  • Experience changes in appetite or weight.
  • Have issues sleeping (disrupted sleep or excessive sleepiness).
  • Feel slow or agitated.
  • Have changes in energy level (either too little energy or unusually high energy).
  • Feel hopeless or worthless.
  • Have trouble concentrating.
  • Have frequent thoughts about death or suicide.

To be diagnosed with SAD, depressive episodes must occur during specific seasons for at least two consecutive years. These episodes must be much more frequent than other depressive episodes the person may have had at other times of the year.

SAD can be a serious mental health condition and may benefit from professional help. Dr. Ruth Zúñiga, Oregon Health Authority psychologist and health advisor, offers some tips to combat it:

  • Get more sunlight: Go out into the sunshine or make your surroundings brighter by opening blinds or curtains to let sunlight into your home or room.
  • Go for a walk or spend time in nature, even if it’s cold and cloudy. Outdoor light can help, especially if you go outside within the first two hours after waking up. This can help control the brain’s internal clock, which is affected by the lack of light in winter and promotes brain chemicals that contribute to mood.
  • Get regular physical activity. This is a powerful tool to relieve stress, eliminate toxins, and combat anxiety and symptoms of depression.
  • Consider using a special light box or lamp. The use of light boxes can be an effective form of treatment. Talk to a health care professional about options that may work for you.
  • Stay connected with loved ones, family, friends, and support networks. Having someone you trust to discuss your concerns, experiences, and feelings is an important factor in helping your mood. Commit to reaching out to at least one person a day and maintaining your social connection.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol. Alcohol can lower the levels of chemicals in the brain that help regulate mood. Lower levels of these chemicals can make a person with depression even more depressed.

If, despite following these tips or making lifestyle changes, your symptoms do not improve, consult a health care provider and ask for help. They can help you find the right treatment.

Get help right away

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger or thinking of harming yourself, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-888-628-9454, which offers free services 24/7.

You can also find mental and emotional health resources on the Safe + Strong website.