Something big is happening. I can feel it in the air. And I can see it in the major change of clothing on my husband. He has started to wear a jacket outside. And, unbelievably, he has changed from wearing shorts to sweat pants when hanging around the house. This is a very big deal. My husband has been known to wear shorts well into the winter while I am wearing multiple layers of clothing, huddled under a blanket and using a heating pad! So what does all this mean. Frankly, to me it signals we are headed for another bad winter. I don’t need to read Farmer’s Almanac …though I did. And it does confirm that winter this year is expected to be cold and snowy.

I find myself trying to be outdoors as much as possible. But I also find I am not quite the happy camper as I have begun to get up in the dark and leave the office in the dark. I can’t wait for the day we “fall backward” ending daylight savings. Although when I am cold I do sometimes get cranky, for others, these weather changes are a major trigger for what is called Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is very different than the “winter blahs” and generally responds very well to treatment.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer.

Treatment for SAD may include broad spectrum light therapy (phototherapy), psychotherapy and medications. If using light therapy, which is often recommended,, it is important to start these treatments in the fall rather than wait till mid-winter when symptoms of SAD are peaking.

Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

For some individuals who suffer from Bi-Polar Disorders spring and summer can bring on symptoms of mania or a less intense form of mania (hypomania), and fall and winter can be a time of depression.

The specific cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. Some factors that may come into play include:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Factors that may increase your risk of seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Being female. SAD is diagnosed more often in women than in men, but men may have more-severe symptoms.
  • Age. Young people have a higher risk of winter SAD, and winter SAD is less likely to occur in older adults.
  • Family history. People with SAD may be more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.
  • Having clinical depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally if you have one of these conditions.
  • Living far from the equator. SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months.

It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, it is important to discuss this with a psychologist or other medical provider who understands SAD. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed or if you feel hopeless, think about suicide, or turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation. As healthier means of coping, try working our with a friend, listen to music, learn yoga or meditation and try to eat healthy meals. Also, whenever possible, go outdoors for a walk and sit by a window with good light exposure.

Additional information about SAD can be found on the Mayo Clinic’s website.

Written by Elaine Ducharme, Ph.D., ABPP