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If You’re Feeling Blue, It Could Be SAD

January 02, 2024

Let’s face it: January isn’t exactly the best when it comes to weather that makes you smile. With fewer hours of daylight and sometimes miserable weather, the winter can make us feel blue. But sometimes that feeling can be a sign of a medical condition known as SAD.

SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is actually pretty common, affecting up to 2% of the population. Milder cases of the winter blues may occur in up to 10% of people.

Donald Jordan, Pathways Program Manager

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs when the seasons change. It’s most common during the colder months, including late fall and winter, but can also occasionally happen when the weather warms up, which is known as summer-pattern SAD.

“If you notice that you feel like a different person when the weather turns colder, it could be because of seasonal affective disorder,” says Donald Jordan, Program Manager for Pathways Behavioral Health Services with West Tennessee Healthcare. “The good news is: Like other forms of depression, SAD is treatable, so it’s important to seek help if you find yourself feeling sad, lonely, or excessively stressed.”

Understanding SAD

Researchers aren’t quite sure what causes SAD, but it is a known phenomenon and a recognized form of depression. 

It is suspected that those who develop SAD may have diminished levels of serotonin, which helps regulate mood. Research suggests exposure to sunlight helps normalize levels of serotonin in the brain, so the reduced exposure to sunlight in the winter may cause this dip in serotonin.

Other research suggests that SAD is associated with too much melatonin, which can be tied to sleepiness and a disruption of the normal sleep/wake cycle. Low levels of vitamin D may also contribute to SAD.

SAD can occur in anyone of any age, though it is more common among women and young adults. Because it is tied to the amount of daylight, the risk of developing the condition is highest among Americans in the North. The further you get from the equator, the greater the risk.

Most of us occasionally feel a little blue on cold winter days. But seasonal affective disorder is more than the occasional blue spell—it’s a persistent feeling that may linger for months. It’s most common during the months of January and February, when the days are shortest.

Recognizing the Symptoms of SAD

If you experience SAD, you may have a variety of symptoms that disrupt your normal routines and rhythms. The condition may begin mildly as the seasons begin to change, then worsen as time goes on. Symptoms may include:

  • Appetite changes
  • Changes in sleep patterns, including sleeping longer than normal
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Feelings of anger, irritability, stress, sadness, hopelessness, or despair
  • Fidgetiness 
  • Loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities
  • Low self-esteem
  • Unexpected weight gain or weight loss
  • Unexplainable aches or pains

If you’re dealing with the effects of SAD, you may find yourself turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs, alcohol, smoking, or even fast food for comfort. 

Diagnosing & Treating SAD

Seasonal affective disorder is typically diagnosed when a person has at least two seasons where symptoms are present. But even if you are experiencing symptoms of SAD for the first time, it’s still a good idea to check in with a medical provider.

The first step is to review your symptoms and determine if an underlying issue in your physical health (such as hypothyroidism) could be causing your symptoms. If SAD or another form of depression is suspected, your primary care provider may refer you to a behavioral health specialist who can help treat the condition. Treatment for SAD may include an antidepressant medication, vitamin D supplementation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and light therapy. 

Your medical provider or therapist may also recommend that you spend more time outdoors, since exposure to sunlight can help. Light therapy has a similar effect since a light therapy box simulates the light from the sun.

In some cases, your medical provider may recommend taking an antidepressant beginning prior to the change in seasons, reducing the chance you’ll develop symptoms of depression.

You can also promote good mental and physical health with some basic healthy living habits. Aim to eat a diet filled with fruits and vegetables, move your body regularly with physical activity, prioritize quality sleep, and spend time engaging with others.

Your mental health is every bit as important as your physical health. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or unsteady, schedule an appointment with Pathways Behavioral Health.

Or, reach out to our Psychiatry & Counseling Office at 1270 Union University Dr. (same building as our Thomsen Farms primary care)
Phone #: 731-265-6450