What to know about seasonal depression as the cold and darkness set in

What to know about seasonal depression as the cold and darkness set in

The story at a glance

  • Changes in daylight and temperatures in fall and winter can lead to changes in mood and energy.

  • Seasonal affective disorder is a type of major depressive disorder.

  • People with this disorder may experience several symptoms of depression, such as feeling listless and hopeless.

With days getting shorter and temperatures dropping in many parts of the country, people can experience seasonal mood swings. Some of this is natural, as people feel their energy dip in response to less sunlight, and for some people this can become severe to the point of a mental health diagnosis. This time of year is associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that can occur when changes occur with the transition from fall to winter.

In previous winters of the coronavirus pandemic, experts have raised concerns about various types of anxiety and depression colliding during the coldest and darkest months. This year, there has been an early rise in cases of RSV, influenza and other respiratory illnesses, particularly among pediatric patients. All of this could contribute to people feeling depressed and stressed as winter approaches.

Although many people may experience low moods, this does not mean that they have SAD, which is a subtype of major depressive disorder (MDD).

“We say a person has winter depression or seasonal affective disorder if they experience this pattern of depressive symptoms consistently during the winter months,” said clinical psychologist Philip Gehrman, who works at the University of Pennsylvania, at Changing America previously.

As a disorder, SAD may be easier to diagnose if it has occurred several years in a row. People with this disorder typically experience at least four depressive symptoms, such as feelings of listlessness, loss of interest in activities, lack of energy, feelings of hopelessness, and irregular sleep.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which psychologists use to diagnose patients, SAD is listed as a “specifier of bipolar or recurrent major depressive disorder, with a seasonal pattern of major depressive episodes.”

Research is still being done to understand SAD and what people with this disorder can do to cope with it.

In a recent study, researchers found a seasonal pattern related to SAD in naturally occurring mRNA levels in the bloodstream. They also found that women and people with evening chronotypes, meaning they prefer to be active later in the day, are at higher risk of SAD.

In a paper published last year, researchers explored how SAD symptoms fall into four domains: negative cognition, loss of vitality, increased appetite/weight, and dysregulation. Symptoms can interact across these domains, which could have implications for how SAD is researched and how interventions are applied, the authors say.

More recent research also suggests that seasonal affective disorder may have an effect on memory and emotional bias. In an experiment published in Brain Sciences, 60 women with untreated SAD attended audio-visual stories that had a neutral or aroused emotional feel.

Compared to a control group of women who did not have SAD, the SAD group performed worse on memory tests afterward and showed an “attentional bias for negative emotional stimuli,” according to the study.

There are various tips on how to deal with seasonal affective disorder. Studies have shown that light therapy can be helpful in improving cognitive performance and mood. In a clinical setting, an SAD patient may be prescribed to use a lamp or light box of 10,000 lux, a measure of brightness. Use of the lamps should, however, be limited to a 30-minute session in the morning, so as not to disrupt general circadian rhythms throughout the day, experts say.

Seasonality affects us all, and for some people with SAD it can seem more intense. With or without a diagnosis, there are steps people can take to lessen the impact of longer darkness and lower temperatures. For example, they can proactively plan to be outdoors during daylight hours before sunset or to use a light box in the morning.

If you think you have depression or SAD, please contact a mental health professional or local health clinic for help.


National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Dial 988 to reach a call center

BIPOC/AAPI mental health resources

Wellness and Coping Skills from Mental Health America

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