Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder: Why Dismal Winter Days Can Darken Your Mood and Ways to Brighten Your Outlook

Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder: Why Dismal Winter Days Can Darken Your Mood and Ways to Brighten Your Outlook

Winter Blues vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder
By Thrive Waco Therapist Katherine Moore, MA, LPC-Associate

Even if you look forward to the holiday season all year, can’t wait to read a good book by a crackling fireplace, and are counting the days until you can frolic through fresh snow, you can also experience seasonal sadness. In fact, most of us have felt down during the winter. Dreary winter days can make it difficult for many to summon their natural cheerfulness, gratitude, and enthusiasm for life. This shift in mood may be confusing, especially if you’re typically captivated by wintertime wonders.

As the nights lengthen, days shorten, temperatures drop, and storm clouds block the sun, your mood can darken. Essentially, the changing patterns of sunlight can disrupt your circadian rhythm (a kind of biological clock that influences your sleepiness and wakefulness patterns) and hormonal balance. Two conditions commonly develop during the winter — the “winter blues” and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), recently designated Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) with a Seasonal Pattern. Below, you can explore the differences between the winter blues and SAD, as well as find wintertime mood-boosting strategies. 

WHAT ARE THE WINTER BLUES?

Individuals struggling with the winter blues generally experience feelings of sadness, fatigue, and loneliness attributed to bleak winter weather. Although not considered a mental disorder, the winter blues may cause you to feel like a gloomy version of yourself, while still being able to participate in and enjoy daily activities. 

 Symptoms of the Winter Blues

  • Feeling sad or down during the winter months
  • Decreased motivation or energy
  • Changes or difficulty with sleeping

Causes of the Winter Blues

  • Cold weather
  • Shorter days, longer nights
  • Decrease or change in exposure to sunlight and vitamin D production

Risk Factors for the Winter Blues

  • Lack of connection to community and social interactions
  • History of depression or anxiety 
  • Environmental considerations (such as living in a climate that experiences particularly long or harsh winters)

WHAT IS SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER?

Also known as seasonal depression, SAD or MDD with a Seasonal Pattern is a subtype of major depressive disorder that interferes with a person’s ability to engage in everyday life and find pleasure in activities that typically spark joy. In most cases, a person struggling with SAD will experience depression that begins in the fall or winter and ends in the spring. Less commonly, individuals may experience SAD in the summer which is possibly brought on by exposure to too much sunlight that can cause sleeplessness, agitation, and anxiety.  

Symptoms of SAD

  • Depressed mood or sadness
  • Decreased motivation or energy
  • Hypersomnia (or excessive sleepiness)
  • Eating beyond fullness
  • Weight gain 
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities that usually evoke happiness
  • Social isolation and withdrawal
  • Feeling agitated
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sense of hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts

Causes of SAD

  • Decrease or change in exposure to sunlight and vitamin D production, resulting in:
    • Changes in circadian rhythm (disruption to your body’s internal clock)
    • Hormonal fluctuation, including imbalances of serotonin and melatonin

Risk Factors for SAD

  • History of depression or anxiety
  • Genetic factors

WAYS TO BOOST YOUR MOOD IN WINTERTIME

You can keep out the cold and wrap yourself in warmth by incorporating some of the self-care strategies below into your wintertime routine. 

  • Eat intuitively. The way you nourish your body is directly connected to your mental health, but shorter days may disrupt breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack time routines. By listening to your fullness and hunger cues, while also eating an array of foods consistently and adequately, you can promote your well-being — including your emotional health.
  • Move mindfully. Allowing yourself the time and space to move intentionally can do wonders for your mind-body-spirit connection. Research shows that mindful movement can help lower stress and anxiety in addition to relieving depression and improving overall mood.
  • Commit to a consistent sleep and wake routine. By going to bed and waking up at the same times every day, you can practice good sleep hygiene, which can help you regulate your emotions effectively and promote overall well-being.  
  • Spend time outdoors in the sun. Sunlight promotes the body’s vitamin D production and vitamin D is believed to affect the regulation of the feel-good hormone serotonin. By doing your best to soak up the sunshine when it graces the sky, you can help foster feelings of happiness. 
  • Maintain connections with family and friends. Loved ones can infuse dismal winter days and long winter nights with laughter, companionship, and a sense of belonging. 
  • Participate in service projects and other community activities. Offering your time to individuals in need and enveloping yourself in your community can bring you a sense of purpose, meaning, and connection. Your presence can light up the lives of others, making you feel good in turn. 

CLINICAL TREATMENT FOR THE WINTER BLUES AND SAD

If your sadness, lethargy, or other depressive symptoms begin to impair your daily functioning or extend beyond the season, we encourage you to seek clinical support. A licensed professional can guide you in developing coping skills, reducing your depressive symptoms, and increasing your resiliency. You deserve to feel wonderful any time of year, and through outpatient therapy, Thrive can help you embrace the winter season with joy. Reach out to us to learn more. 

About the Author

Thrive Waco Therapist Katherine Moore, MA, LPC-Associate

Katherine’s areas of clinical focus include mood disorders (such as depression and anxiety), adjustment, identity, self-esteem, life transitions, relationships, as well as grief and loss. She’s passionate about facilitating growth, providing empathy, and forming genuine connections with clients. Katherine believes that we all have stories that shape us and make us who we are, and she feels honored to create a safe space where an individual’s story can be shared. She hopes that all clients feel seen and heard during sessions with her and that through the process of therapy they discover new insights, awareness, authenticity, and self-agency.

Katherine earned her Master of Arts degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor as well.

Quality time is one of Katherine’s top love languages, and when not at Thrive she can be found sharing that time with those she cares for, browsing bookstores, watching the same shows repeatedly on Netflix, exploring the outdoors, and traveling.

Supervised by Erin McGinty Fort, LPC-Supervisor (76628) | Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors