Winter Blues: Fall and winter seasons prompt onset of seasonal affective disorder

Posted: 6:49 PM, Oct 19, 2021
Updated: 2021-10-19 19:49:47-04

The excitement of colder weather and the holidays can be felt all around this time of year. But for some, the change in seasons brings a more melancholy feeling.

You may call it the winter blues, but to experts, it’s known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that changes with the seasons. It typically comes about during the fall and wanes come the spring.

“It's been something that's been studied for many years," said Dr. Sam Fiala, chair of the counseling and psychology department at Texas A&M-Central Texas. "People kind of noticed there's this seasonal pattern for some individuals.”

Experts say the change in mood comes from the seasonal amount of daily sunlight. Days in the fall and winter are shorter than days in the spring and summer, meaning less sunlight.

“When we're in the sunlight, we produce melatonin in our bodies, and when we're not, we have less of that, so that can affect our sleep," said Dr. Emma Church, a licensed clinical psychologist in Waco. "Also, vitamin D has a significant impact on mood, and so we produce vitamin D when we're in the sunlight. And also there's evidence that it affects serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is correlated with our mood and with depression.”

SAD has the same mental symptoms as depression. Unlike typical depression, SAD comes with physical symptoms, including changes in appetite, weight gain or loss and low energy.

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“One of the current theories is that kind of the change in light first leads to these vegetative or physical symptoms, right, where you have this kind of lethargy, tiredness, possibly increase in weight gain, lack of vitality," said Dr. Fiala. "And then for some people, they notice that and then they develop cognitive symptoms about the physical symptoms. They begin to feel guilty about being tired and gaining weight, and they feel guilty and they start ruminating, or thinking a lot, about themselves in a negative way, and then that leads to this kind of, this further spiraling of depression.”

It's more common to see seasonal affective disorder farther north, where winters are harsher. However, Dr. Church says the condition is not uncommon for the Lone Star State.

“I think in Texas, it is probably less common than it is in other areas of the country where the winters tend to be longer and more relentless, like up north," she said. "But it is something that I've definitely seen in my practice and seen in some of my patients, maybe superimposed on top of other issues."

The holidays often come with feelings of depression, especially if a loved one has passed. But SAD is different.

“It's not typically associated with a trigger in somebody’s life," said Dr. Church. "You know, when we have traumatic events at any time of year, that can be a trigger for feeling sad the next year at the same time, but this is really strongly related to the weather and the ways in which the sunlight changes.”

Many family lost loved ones due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also forced many to take note of their mental health.

"Potentially there may be people with seasonal affective disorder that never really noticed it," said Dr. Church, "They might've called it like the winter blues, or just kind of noticed like, nah, I'm kind of down in the dumps during this time of year. But with COVID adding extra stressors, they might start to notice that, oh, this is actually really impacting me."
“Somewhat ironically, the pandemic may be good for some people with seasonal affective disorder if it has forced them to spend more time outside than they typically would have," said Dr. Fiala.

SAD is often milder than traditional depression. However, mental health practitioners still encourage those struggling to reach out for help.

“I think there's the temptation to say oh well, if it's seasonal, I'll ride it out a couple of months," said Dr. Fiala. "And again, true, but wouldn't you rather enjoy those couple months? Think about especially if you have other people in your life that you'd like to be present for. You know, it's hard to be fully present when you're struggling with depression, and so it's hard on you and it's gonna be hard on them as well. So getting help is something to do for yourself and to do for those that you care about.”

When reaching out, consistency is key.

“You're going to need to be persistent because a lot of people are reaching out right now, and so folks are very, very busy in our community in terms of providers, and you may not, the first person you call, they may not have an availability," Dr. Fiala continued. "You may have to call three or four people until you can kind of make that connection. But I would encourage people if they are feeling, yeah, this may be something, this may be more than just feeling a little blue, I think I could use some help, then do, you know, reach out.”

If you cannot speak with a mental health professional, Dr. Church says talking with a friend or loved one who is in a better mental space can also be beneficial.