Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): More Than a Case of the “Winter Blues”

Published on December 3, 2020

Canaan, CT – Winter invokes happy memories of watching holiday movies and building snow forts for some, but for others, the season can create added mental health woes. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that typically surfaces during the fall and winter, can wreak havoc on sufferers’ overall well-being. This rings especially true against the backdrop of a global pandemic, when many already feel emotionally fatigued from being cooped up in their homes.

“The symptoms of seasonal depression vary from person to person. Some may have difficulty concentrating and feel exceedingly anxious, stressed, or sad. Others may isolate themselves and stop participating in activities that once brought them joy,” says Lisa Westerson, LCSW, Director of Residential Services. “For those who struggle with seasonal depression, these symptoms will typically diminish during the warmer months when the sun is out and the days are longer.”

In addition to a general lack of light and shorter days during the colder months, the onset of SAD – a more intense form of the “winter blues” – can be largely attributed to an individual’s genetics and stress levels. Another risk factor is major depressive disorder, with the National Library of Medicine noting that 10 to 20 percent of those who struggle with this disease also experience SAD. Some research, such as a 2017 study in Psychiatry Research, likewise points to an overlap between seasonal depression and alcohol use disorder, though drawing a definitive correlation between the two remains difficult.

Westerson explains, “Because stress can weaken the immune system, sufferers may find themselves feeling physically ill. Other physical signs of seasonal depression can include wanting to stay in bed or overeating – by reaching for sweets or carbohydrate-rich foods in particular. People struggling with seasonal depression often have low serotonin levels, and therefore crave carbs because they contribute to the production of serotonin, which elevates mood.”

Establishing healthy coping mechanisms for handling seasonal depression is especially dire during the COVID-19 era. While having a strong immune system is top of mind for many, maintaining wellness can prove challenging in the face of unprecedented stress. In adjusting to a “new normal,” individuals can still pursue teletherapy and should prioritize maintaining a routine consisting of regular sleep, exercise, and mindful eating. “Treating both the body and the mind is critical for managing symptoms of seasonal depression. One can start by consulting a mental health professional, trying light box therapy, and/or eating healthier foods,” Westerson says.

For tips on coping with mental health concerns during the winter holidays, register for Mountainside’s free, virtual holiday season workshop by visiting: https://mountainside.com/beat-holiday-stress

Those struggling with addiction and mental health disorders this winter are encouraged to dial our Holiday Helpline at 833-200-6665, or learn more by visiting: https://mountainside.com/holiday-support