What’s the Difference Between the ‘Winter Blues’ and Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD)?

The short answer from a behavioral health specialist

Q: How do I know if I just have the “winter blues” or if I have seasonal affective disorder?

A: Seasonal affective disorder, SAD, is more than just the winter blues. SAD is characterized by two weeks or more of depressed mood.

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You have symptoms such as:

  • Disturbances in your sleep.
  • Loss of interest.
  • Decreased energy.
  • No motivation.
  • Increased appetite (often leading to winter weight gain).

Those who experience SAD also have a tendency to withdraw from social occasions and some even have thoughts of hopelessness or worthlessness.

Research shows women tend to experience SAD four times more often than men. Those who are impacted by SAD tend to experience symptoms between the ages of 18 and 30.

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When the days get shorter and we have less sunlight, an over-production of melatonin can contribute to people feeling tired and having less energy. Likewise, people with SAD have difficulty regulating serotonin, which is the brain chemical that is responsible for balancing mood.

If you find yourself unable to shake depressive feelings during the change in seasons, be sure to seek the help of a health professional. It’s important not to ignore seasonal depressive symptoms — or chalk them up as “holiday stress.” SAD is actually a type of major depressive disorder that needs attention and treatment.

There are medications, cognitive therapies and other methods, such as light therapy (sitting in front of a particular type of light for about 20 to 60 minutes a day in the morning) that can make a real difference.

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Mirica Sanders, DO, psychiatrist

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