Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Winter Blues

As fall changes to winter, do you sense a change in your mood as well? When days get shorter and darkness more plentiful, do you feel slowed down or unmotivated to wake up? Maybe it's difficult to focus on schoolwork or relationships. Quite possibly, you just feel down in the dumps. If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. What you may be experiencing is seasonal changes in mood and behavior, also known as seasonality or seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

It's estimated that 6% of the U.S. population is affected by SAD. It can cause a great deal of distress and difficulties in functioning, both at work and in your personal life. SAD is considered a mood disorder associated with depressive episodes and related to seasonal variations of light. It is not to be confused with a diagnosis of full depression.


For a diagnosis of SAD, the symptoms must occur regularly during the fall and winter months. In addition, they must have been present two years prior to diagnosis. The symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Overeating
  • Lack of sex drive
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating or processing information
  • Craving for sugary or starchy foods

Why Do You Get It?

As the seasons change, your biological clock responds to the changes in sunlight patterns. This shift can cause your biological clock to fall out of step with your daily schedule. Individuals who experience SAD have a difficult time adjusting to the shortage of sunlight during the winter months. SAD symptoms are most pronounced in January and February when the days are shortest.

Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, is sometimes referred to as the "master biological clock". It has been linked to SAD and may contribute to depression. The reason is that the production of this hormone increases during darkness. So when the days are shorter and darker, it may affect your mood and behavior.

Those at Risk

Young people and women are at the highest risk for the disorder, but it can affect anyone. SAD typically begins around the age of 20 and decreases around the age of 50. Those affected by SAD may not feel bad enough to seek medical attention, but feel less cheerful in the fall and winter.

There are three other factors that are believed to increase your risk of developing SAD:

  1. Inherent vulnerability - Studies show that SAD runs in families with a history of different types of depression, including SAD.
  2. Light deprivation - Changes in latitude and season resulting in decreased exposure to light can negatively affect mood.
  3. Stress - An increased level of stress is associated with the onset of SAD.

College freshmen with a history of problematic seasonal changes are also at a higher risk for developing SAD. The first year of college is full of changes that may contribute to developing SAD. They include:

  • The physical move to college that may involve a change of climate or latitude.
  • Your ability to cope is compromised by the increase of stress due to the demands of college. This can create a domino effect --- decrease in energy, inability to complete homework assignments, problems with classes, lack of confidence in your abilities, feelings of depression, and so on.
  • Self-discipline is more important because parents and family are not here to get you to class or encourage you to complete assignments.
  • Lack of early morning sunlight. (For example, when you stay in a dark room instead of walking to your 8 a.m. class.)

What Can You Do?

Psychotherapy helps you identify and modify negative thoughts and behaviors that may play a role in bringing about symptoms of SAD. You and your counselor may also talk about ways to reduce stress in your life. Light therapy may also be recommended. You can also try some of the recommendations listed below for coping with and avoiding the winter blues.

If you think you may have SAD, discuss your symptoms with a doctor or mental health professional. Or contact the Personal Counseling Office to schedule an appointment. All services are free and confidential.

Winter Blues

Do you notice subtle changes in your mood, but maybe not drastic enough to seek professional help? You may be experiencing a lesser form of SAD, known as the winter blues. This condition can make you feel less cheerful, energetic, creative, and productive during the dark, winter days than at other times of the year.

Coping with the Winter Blues

Here are some tips:

  • Change the environment. "Light up your life" --- remove drapes from windows, paint walls brighter colors, or install brighter light bulbs.
  • Keep warm; turn up the heat, use electric blankets, or enjoy a warm drink such as hot chocolate.
  • Exercise. Regular aerobic activity such as running or walking may be helpful. Make sure the activity is something you'll enjoy so you're more likely to stick to it. Find a friend to exercise with you for support and added motivation.
  • Modify your diet. Eat more complex carbohydrates (like cereal, pasta, nuts) rather than simple carbs (such as candy or cookies). Snacks are okay --- as many as three times per day --- as long as they are low-calorie (i.e. apples, celery, carrots, dried fruits, or popcorn).

Top Ten Ways to Avoid the Winter Blues

  • Pay attention to your moods and energy levels. If you realize that your spirits begin to sink at the end of summer, take pre-emptive action. A good offense is better than an after-the-fact defense.
  • Try to establish a mental set that will help you to enjoy the wintertime. It's going to happen, so focus on enjoying it.
  • Plan active events for yourself in advance of the fall season.
  • Expose yourself to as much bright light as you can. Walk outdoors on sunny days, even during the winter months. If it is gray and overcast, use as much light indoors as you can.
  • Increase the amount of light in your home, apartment, or room. Position furniture so the windows are not blocked; open the blinds and/or curtains.
  • Stay physically active and begin your physical activity before the winter blues begin to set in. Physical exercise helps relieve stress and anxiety which can accentuate SAD. Being more fit can make you feel better about yourself.
  • If possible, take a winter vacation or spring break in a sunny, warm location.
  • Learn more effective ways to manage stress.
  • Do something nice for yourself every day.
  • Seek competent professional help. If you feel yourself sinking and realize you are losing control, don't feel ashamed or try to hide it. Remember that many people feel this way.