February 07, 2022

AHA Blog: Winter Blues

Posted by Anna Jang (AHA ’23) 


When the days grow shorter, sunlight becomes sparse, and the temperature drops until you can no longer feel your toes, you may notice changes in your mood. Maybe it’s because of the dark and gloomy weather, or the empty seat at your lunch table because your friend is sick, but you may feel more fatigued and “down” than usual throughout the winter season. If you do encounter significant mood and behavior changes during the fall and winter, you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. 


SAD is a type of depression identified by its recurring yearly seasonal pattern. The effects of SAD can interfere with a person’s daily life and can impact how someone feels or thinks. The most common type of SAD, winter-pattern SAD, starts in the late fall and can last until spring or summer. However, some people experience SAD symptoms during the spring and summer. This less common phenomenon is known as summer-pattern SAD. 


According to Hopkins Medicine, common symptoms of SAD include:

  • Depression 
  • Loss of interest in activities 
  • Social withdrawal 
  • Changes in sleep patterns (oversleeping, trouble sleeping, etc.) 
  • Fatigue, or low energy level 
  • Suicidal thoughts 
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Changes in weight 

A study by the American Psychiatry Association found that “about 5 percent of adults in the U.S. experience SAD and it typically lasts about 40 percent of the year.” Studies have also shown that women are more susceptible to SAD, both winter-pattern and summer-pattern. In addition, SAD is more common in people who live farther from the equator, where there is less daylight during the winter. 


Scientists have not pinpointed one true cause of SAD, but it has been mainly linked to a hormone imbalance due to the decreased sunlight. Research indicates that those with SAD have decreased levels of serotonin, a brain chemical responsible for regulating mood. The lack of sunlight is believed to hinder the promotion of serotonin activity since the body produces vitamin D (a vitamin believed to help regulate serotonin production) when the skin is exposed to the sun. Furthermore, there are increased levels of melatonin, a hormone that maintains the sleep-wake cycle. The darkness of the wintertime leads to more melatonin production, and increased feelings of sleepiness. These changes in serotonin and melatonin levels disrupt one’s regular circadian rhythm. This disturbance prevents those with SAD from adjusting to the seasonal changes, leading to a shift in mood, sleep, and behavior. 


By now, you may be wondering, “Is there a treatment or cure?” The answer is yes! Although SAD symptoms recede once the season changes, there are effective methods that can help. 


Increased exposure to sunlight is one recommendation for those experiencing SAD. If this is not sufficient, a popular treatment is light therapy, which involves sitting in front of a bright light for 20 minutes or more per day. Cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as “talk therapy,” is another treatment. CBT encourages individuals to “[focus] on replacing negative thoughts related to the winter season (e.g., about the darkness of winter) with more positive thoughts” (National Institute of Mental Health). A medical professional might recommend an antidepressant after making a diagnosis.

In general, if you are looking for a way to lift your mood during the gray days of winter, there are many steps you can take. Regular exercise is highly recommended, as well as taking care of your general health. This includes eating healthier, getting enough sleep, and staying connected by participating in activities with others. Those with winter pattern SAD may want to drink hot chocolate and play in the snow to make their days more enjoyable. 


It may be difficult to feel motivated or feel happy if you suffer from SAD, but there are many different options you can choose to help alleviate symptoms. It is absolutely okay to ask for help, and there are always solutions. Experiencing mood swings and “down” behavior is normal, and something a lot of people go through. Hopefully utilizing these tips will help you, and fear not; spring is just around the corner! 


Important Notice: The contents of this blog post are for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your condition. Never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this blog, website, or any linked/source materials. If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time. Always consult a medical professional to obtain a proper diagnosis before seeking treatment. 


Sources and Works Cited 
“NIMH » Seasonal Affective Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, diseases/seasonal-affective-disorder. 
“Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).” Mental Health America, affective-disorder-sad. 
“The Symptoms and Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder: SAD Part 1.” You’re Not Alone, 7 December 2020, Torres, Felix. “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).” American Psychiatric Association,