Seasonal mood changes are a common condition. Millions of people experience mood changes as fall and winter begin. These mood changes can be significant and lead to difficulty managing daily activities. The condition is called seasonal affective disorder or seasonal depression. It can be very distressing and affect work, school, and relationships.
There are treatments and coping mechanisms for dealing with seasonal depression, so it lessens the impact on work, family time, and other activities.
What Is Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal depression, which is sometimes called Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a change in mood that accompanies the change in seasons. The most common type of seasonal depression is fall-onset depression, but some people experience spring-onset mood changes, such as sadness, hopelessness, irritability as well as changes to appetite and sleep patterns.
Experts diagnose seasonal affective disorder when mood changes occur at the same time of year for at least two years. The mood changes are typically persistent and cause daily symptoms. The symptoms are significant enough that they interfere with daily activities like work, school, or relationships.
Experts can’t define a single cause for seasonal depression. It may be linked to a number of factors that affect mood and energy such as.
One possible cause is a biochemical imbalance in the brain caused by the reduced amount of sunlight in winter. Sunlight may affect a brain chemical called serotonin, which regulates mood and appetite. Less sunlight may mean less serotonin activity in the brain.
The change in sunlight may also cause the brain to increase production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that triggers feelings of sleepiness. Increased melatonin production may be responsible for the low energy and fatigue that sometimes comes with seasonal depression. Lack of melatonin may cause sleeplessness associated with spring-onset seasonal depression.
Circadian Rhythm Changes
The change in the amount of light and darkness may also affect circadian rhythms. This is the internal clock that signals the body when to sleep and wake each day. Environmental signals like sunrise and sunset can change the body’s natural sleep-wake schedule, as well as signals like when to have meals. Work and school schedules don’t change to accommodate changes to the circadian rhythm, so many people find themselves working against their natural rhythms, which causes tiredness and low moods.
Who Gets Seasonal Depression?
Anyone can experience seasonal depression, but it is most common in adults. People tend to notice the onset of seasonal depression between the ages of 18 and 30. On average, women are more likely than men to have seasonal depression symptoms.
There can be a higher risk for seasonal affective disorder for people who have a personal or family history of mental health conditions such as:
- Anxiety disorder
- Major depressive disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Panic disorder
- Eating disorders
The physical environment can also increase the risk of seasonal mood changes. People are more likely to experience seasonal depression if they live at latitudes far north or far south from the equator, where there is significantly less sunlight during the winter. People who live in cloudy regions may also be at higher risk.
Seasonal Depression Symptoms
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are often similar to other forms of depression or anxiety. Symptoms vary depending on whether seasonal depression affects people in the spring and summer or fall and winter. Most people report that symptoms are mild as the seasons start to change, then get worse over time.
Symptoms of fall-onset depression usually begin in the fall or early winter. Signs and symptoms of fall-onset seasonal depression may include:
- Consistently feeling sad or down
- Losing interest in activities one usually enjoys
- Having low energy or feeling sluggish
- Sleeping more than usual
- Changes in appetites, such as carbohydrate cravings or overeating
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
Symptoms of spring-onset depression begin in spring or early summer. This type is much less common, though it can be just as severe as fall onset. Signs and symptoms of spring-onset depression include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Low appetite
- Feelings of agitation or anxiety
- Increased irritability
If depression symptoms don’t get better when winter ends, it may be the result of a more persistent form of depression that isn’t linked to seasonal changes. If this might be the case, a doctor or a mental health care provider can provide support for dealing with chronic depression.
In severe cases, seasonal depression can lead to thoughts of not wanting to live. Thoughts of self-harm are an emergency. Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts or wanting to help someone considering self-harm can call the national suicide hotline by dialing 988 for immediate help.
How Long Does Seasonal Depression Last?
Seasonal depression can last for many months. Some studies show that people who have seasonal depression experience symptoms for four to five months or 40 percent of the year. Many people notice effects beginning in the fall, with symptoms being most significant in January and February. The effects of seasonal depression tend to taper off in early spring.
People with spring-onset depression notice symptoms beginning as the days get longer, and mood changes tend to resolve in the fall.
How to Handle Fall-Onset Seasonal Depression
No one should have to struggle with fall-onset seasonal depression every year. Certain treatments and coping mechanisms can reduce symptoms and increase energy and sense of well-being.
1. Light Therapy
Since fall-onset seasonal depression may be linked to the decrease in sunlight during winter, light therapy can help ease the effects of long, dark days. Treatment involves sitting in front of a special lamp light therapy box that emits a very bright light. Light boxes are available without a prescription, though a doctor or mental health care provider can recommend a lamp to ensure it has the right features. Most people need daily light exposure for at least 20 minutes per day. Symptoms will start to decrease within a week or two, and continuing light therapy will help ensure symptoms don’t return. Some people begin using their light box at the end of summer to prevent symptoms.
2. Outdoor Time
Exposure to natural sunlight can also mitigate the effects of seasonal depression by helping the body get used to the new patterns of darkness and daylight. Spending time outside when the weather permits can improve mood. Increasing the amount of sunlight that enters a home or office can help as well. Opening drapes or blinds or sitting in sunny areas of the house can provide a helpful dose of sunlight.
3. Vitamin D
One of the effects of sun exposure is vitamin D production. Human bodies need sunlight to produce this essential nutrient. Some people become vitamin D deficient in the winter months, and that can exacerbate feelings of depression. Taking a vitamin D supplement may help, but you should consult your physician before starting any vitamins or supplements.
Talk therapy is helpful for managing depression, no matter what the cause is. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be especially helpful as a way to understand complicated feelings and develop mindful or positive responses to negative emotions. Working with a licensed mental health care professional can help people struggling with seasonal depression understand their emotions, develop coping skills, and improve their outlook.
Antidepressants are highly effective at helping reduce the effects of seasonal depression or other causes of depression. These are prescription medications that help balance the neurotransmitters that affect mood. A doctor can prescribe them if other types of treatment aren’t effective enough. It is safe to continue light therapy and talk therapy while taking antidepressants.
6. Lifestyle Changes
Engaging in thoughtful self-care can help reduce the effects of seasonal depression. Eating a balanced diet to get complete nutrition can improve overall energy levels. Getting 30 minutes of exercise at least three days per week can boost mood and reduce stress. Staying connected to supportive friends and family and staying involved in enjoyable activities is a good way to improve mood.
Finding the right treatment plan can help manage mood changes during the cold, dark months of winter. Many people with seasonal depression may benefit from talking to a doctor or a licensed mental health care provider about what treatment they may need. The licensed mental health care providers at Telemynd can help identify the cause of mood changes and recommend steps to start feeling better.
Taking care of mental health all year long is an important form of self-care. Addressing seasonal depression can make winter and fall more enjoyable times of the year.