“Winter Blues” vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

By Denise Holcomb, Removing The Stigma

Along with the pandemic again this year, comes another giant of mental illness that individuals may have to fight called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The most difficult months for people with SAD are January and February. It may begin at any age, but it typically starts between ages 18 and 30. 

To understand what SAD is, it is best to begin by explaining what it is not. 

SAD is not the same as the “Winter Blues.” According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), “Winter Blues is a general term, NOT a medical diagnosis. It is fairly common and more mild than serious. It usually clears up on its own in a fairly short amount of time.” According to Dr. Matthew Rudorfer, a mental health expert at NIH, “the so-called winter blues are often linked to something specific, such as stressful holidays or reminders of absent loved ones.”

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of clinical depression, which relates to the change of season. The symptoms start in the fall, and continue into the winter months. SAD symptoms can last four to five months per year. The signs and symptoms of SAD include many of those associated with major depression.

Symptoms of major depression include:  

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

For winter-pattern SAD, additional specific symptoms may include:

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)

There is also a SAD, which occurs in the spring and summer months called Summer-Pattern SAD.  

Specific systems for Summer-Pattern SAD may include:

  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Poor appetite, leading to weight loss
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Episodes of violent behavior 

For more information about Seasonal Affective Disorder such as: 

  • How SAD is diagnosed
  • Who develops SAD
  • What causes SAD 
  • How SAD is treated

The following “self-care” tips may help with seasonal depression: 

  • See a mental health professional if sadness doesn’t go away or interferes with your daily life: 
  • Go to a movie, take a walk, go ice-skating, or do other activities you normally enjoy. 
  • Get out in the sunlight or brightly lit spaces, especially early in the day. 
  • Try to spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or relative. 
  • Eat nutritious foods, and avoid overloading on carbohydrates like cookies and candies. 
  • Be patient. You won’t suddenly “snap out of” depression. Your mood will improve gradually. 

If you have thoughts of suicide, get help right away. Call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800- 273-TALK (8255).