Winter Blues: Why Mental Health Worsens During Winter Months

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As nice at it is to cozy up with a warm blanket and a hot cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate in the winter months, for some people, the cold-weather season brings a shift in mood. The limited daylight hours and gray days invite in feelings of sadness and fatigue. It’s typically a temporary state known as “winter blues.” This is a general term and not a medical diagnosis. Experiencing the winter blues is fairly common, is usually mild, and clears up with lifestyle changes. For others, however, this feeling of sadness affects their ability to function and may be a more severe clinical condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

 

How Is Depression Different from Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Clinical depression, or major depressive disorder, is a serious mood disorder that affects how an individual thinks, feels, and handles day-to-day activities such as working, sleeping, or eating.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Conditions, fifth editionA young woman battling the winter blues. (DSM-V) is a major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. It, too, impacts an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and how they handle their day-to-day activities. However, SAD’s behavior or mood modifications change with the seasons, appearing in late fall or early winter and ending during the spring and summer.

Clinical or major depression symptoms may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day every day or nearly every day.
  • Having thoughts of suicide.
  • Having changes in appetite or weight.
  • Feeling worthless or hopeless.
  • Having difficulty focusing.
  • Feeling sluggish.
  • Losing interest in activities once enjoyed.
  • Experiencing sleep problems.

SAD symptoms range from mild to debilitating and may include:

  • Withdrawing socially.
  • Sleeping too much, known as hypersomnia, or having difficulty sleeping.
  • Overeating.
  • Gaining weight.
  • Losing interest in activities once enjoyed.
  • Lacking the ability to focus or concentrate.
  • Feeling lethargic or fatigued.
  • Experiencing feelings of hopelessness.
  • Having suicidal thoughts.

If you feel like you’re experiencing one or more of the above symptoms, consult a healthcare professional. Depression and SAD are both serious mental health conditions. The earlier an individual seeks help, the earlier they can get the treatment they need.

So, how do you know if what you’re experiencing is the winter blues or SAD?

According to Dr. Matthew Rudorfer, a mental health expert at the National Institute of Health, “Winter blues is a general term, not a medical diagnosis. It’s fairly common, and it’s more mild than serious.” Winter blues may be the result of a stressful holiday season or missing absent loved ones, but this “mood” tends to clear up with lifestyle changes and self-care routines.

There’s definitely a change as the holidays approach, starting near the end of October or early November. The days get shorter, and the pressures and stresses mount—financially, socially, and emotionally—and then it all ends abruptly at the beginning of January. This roller coaster can lead some to feel down, in a slump, or just generally sad. They may have the winter blues.

When it comes to SAD, this reduction in sunlight in the fall and winter months due to shorter days seems to be what triggers this clinical form of severe depression. The body’s internal clock responds to environmental cues, such as light and darkness. During daylight hours, the brain sends signals to other parts of the body that are action oriented. During the night-time hours, a gland in the brain produces melatonin; a chemical that helps us sleep.

To combat the issue, healthcare professionals may recommend that individuals struggling with SAD try light therapy. Light therapy has proven to be 70% effective after a few weeks. It consists of sitting in front of a light box for 30 minutes or longer per day, contingent on the healthcare provider’s recommendations. Although this therapy is effective on most people, those who don’t get relief from it may find cognitive-behavioral therapy, a type of “talk-therapy,” to be beneficial.

If, in addition to major depressive disorder or SAD, you are battling substance misuse, American Addiction Centers (AAC) has nationwide treatment facilities to help you reach long-term sobriety. Not only do we treat co-occurring substance and mental health disorders, such as depression, simultaneously, but we also provide inpatient and outpatient treatment services under licensed and compassionate healthcare professionals. If you’re struggling, please reach out for the help you need today.

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