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Have the Winter Blues?

Date: 12/01/21

The shorter days of winter can leave many people feeling sad. Maybe it’s a letdown after the holidays, or being stuck inside because of the cold weather. For most of us, these feelings are brief and quickly go away – they’re just the “winter blues.” But others have more serious mood changes that occur year after year and last until the days get longer in the spring. These people may have a more severe condition, called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

Just the blues, or SAD?

“Winter blues” isn’t a medical condition. People with the winter blues can often point to one specific thing that makes them feel sad, like holiday stress, and the feeling goes away on its own pretty quickly. But SAD – which is actually a type of depression called seasonal depression – interferes with a person’s ability to function over a long period of time. People with SAD can experience fatigue, irritability, loss of interest in things, sleep changes (either too much or too little), craving and eating more carbs and sweets, weight gain, long-lasting sadness, and feelings of hopelessness or despair. Some people even report thoughts of suicide.

A key feature of SAD is that it follows a regular pattern, appearing each year as the seasons change, and going away several months later when the seasons change again. Most of the time, it occurs during the winter months, but some people have summer-related SAD. SAD is more common the further from the equator you are – in Florida, for example, only about 1% of people have SAD, while in Alaska it can be as much as 10%. Women tend to develop SAD more than men.

Tips to manage SAD

For mild symptoms, some simple self-care tips might help, including these as suggested by the American Psychiatric Association and the National Institutes of Health:

Experience as much daylight as possible. Scientists think that lack of exposure to the sun is part of what causes SAD. Try to get out in the sunlight, especially early in the day, or sit by a window.  

Eat healthy foods. Comfort foods don’t have to be loaded with extra calories and lots of sugar and fat. Choose carbohydrates that are also high in fiber, like whole grains and fruits. For example, instead of cake or cookies, try making a dessert from seasonal fruits like apples and pears. While you’re at it, add a little cinnamon. It not only smells and tastes great, some research shows that cinnamon helps to regulate blood sugar.

Stay Active. Go to a movie, take a walk, or do other activities you normally enjoy. Taking up a new outdoor sport can help you get more sunshine.

Spend time with family and friends. Try to spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or relative.

Be patient. You won’t suddenly “snap out” of depression. Your mood will improve gradually.

Seek professional help. If your sadness doesn’t go away, or interferes with your daily life, see a mental health professional.

Written by Cindy Maxim

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Please always follow your healthcare provider's instructions. Programs and services are subject to change. Managed Health Network, LLC (MHN) is a subsidiary of Health Net, LLC. The MHN companies include Managed Health Network and MHN Services, LLC. Health Net and Managed Health Network are registered service marks of Health Net, LLC or its affiliates. All rights reserved.