Winter blues or something more?

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By Rhoda Rees, FNP

Embrace Women’s Health Clinic, Baxter


It happens every year. The cold sets in, daylight grows shorter and snow flurries fly. Naturally, this change in seasons is commonly followed by a case of the winter blues. That’s completely normal. But what if your melancholy mood is more serious than it appears?Silhouette of sad teenage girl looking out the window on a cold autumn day

Depression is a prevalent issue in our society, and sometimes, it comes with a seasonal element. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs when fall and winter arrive and then resolves in the spring and summer. Left untreated, this cycle can recur every year, repeating over and over.


How do I tell the difference between SAD and winter blues?

Symptoms of winter blues are typically short-lived. Everyone is allowed a little slump during the winter doldrums, but if you feel down and out for longer than two weeks, your affliction may be more serious.

SAD symptoms include:

  • Irritability
  • Sleep problems
  • Change in appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of energy
  • No interest in activities
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Thoughts of suicide

You might also be more at risk for SAD if you’ve experienced any form of depression or mood disorder in the past or if you have a family history of the disorder.

If you think you might be suffering from SAD, it’s important that you make an appointment to see your provider. An assessment, questionnaire and family history will help determine your diagnosis.


Can it be treated?

Treatment depends on severity. For a mild case, and if you are willing to change habits, then lifestyle alterations can be a solution. This includes a healthy diet, regular exercise and an adequate amount of sleep.

Melting snowman on the warm rainy day in the middle of January winter weather.Pursuing outside activities during the day can also be a major help. They get you out and moving around, which is a benefit to serotonin, your happy hormone. You also get a good dose of fresh air and natural light to help keep your internal clock in check.

You may experience barriers at first, so what’s it going to take to get you outside? If you aren’t motivated to try full-on exercise, would you go for a walk? Then maybe you could take it a step further by cross-country skiing or ice skating. The key is finding something outside that you would be willing to pursue.

For more severe cases of SAD, depression medication may be needed. Another option is light therapy. This involves a special red light that gives off UV rays to replenish your vitamin D supply, which decreases your risk of health conditions. Using light therapy for even one hour a day can improve symptoms. You could also ask your provider about vitamin D supplements.

Hundreds of patients every year come in with SAD, so if you receive this diagnosis, you are among a large group who have gone before you and emerged successfully. By being proactive, you and your provider can identify your barriers and develop a treatment plan to reduce symptoms and help you enjoy the winter.


About the Author: Rhoda Rees is a family nurse practitioner at Embrace Women’s Health Clinic in Baxter. She is board certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Women’s health is her specialty and her passion, and she loves helping patients make educated decisions that positively impact their health.