Is There a Difference Between the Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

seasonal affective disorder

The winter blues are a common thing that many people experience when the weather shifts from bright days to the cold, darker days of winter. But if your winter blues start to creep into all aspects of your life, you could be experiencing SAD, which is different. SAD is a recurrent type of depression that typically starts in the fall and continues through the winter months. Here we’ll outline the differences between the two, their symptoms, and what you can do to treat them both.

What Are the Winter Blues?

If you’re feeling sad, irritated, or less energetic during the winter months, you may be experiencing the winter blues. The primary cause of the winter blues and SAD is the lower level of natural light we’re exposed to in the fall and winter. Experiencing less natural light can cause the following problems:

  • Dips in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood
  • Disruptions in your circadian rhythms (your body’s internal clock), which help control sleep-wake cycles
  • Alterations in melatonin, a hormone that’s associated with both mood and sleep

What’s the Difference Between Winter Blues vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder?

One of the major differences between winter blues and SAD is that winter blues don’t typically hinder your ability to enjoy life. Winter blues are sometimes referred to as subsyndromal SAD because it’s a less severe form of SAD. The most common symptoms of the winter blues are general sadness and a lack of energy. Other symptoms of the winter blues include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling less social than usual
  • Difficulty taking initiative

SAD is a recurrent type of depression that starts in the fall and continues through winter. The most common symptoms of SAD are sleeping too much and overeating. Other SAD symptoms include:

  • Mood that’s down or depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy
  • Withdrawing and isolating yourself from friends and family
  • Struggling to focus and perform at home and work
  • Constantly feeling fatigued and lethargic
  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Having suicidal thoughts

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Tips on Beating the Winter Blues

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help beat the winter blues. These methods are typically the same to help beat SAD, they’re just not as intensive. Here are some things you can do:

  • Take a walk in the morning light. This allows you to get exercise, which is shown to treat depression in general. Exposing yourself to more sunlight has also been shown to effectively treat depression in the winter months.
  • Plan regular activities with your friends and family. Getting out of the house and connecting with others is a great way to raise your spirits. Go grab a cup of coffee or take a walk in the park with a friend or family member. 
  • Keep a regular sleeping schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time in the morning. This will ensure that you’re well-rested, which will give you more energy during the day. 
  • Lighten up. When you wake up on a dark, gloomy morning, turn on overhead lights and lamps. You may also want to invest in lamps that mimic natural outdoor light.
  • Talk about it. If you’re feeling blue or unmotivated, opening up about it to a friend or family member can be very helpful. If your sadness is becoming overwhelming, consider reaching out to a counselor or other professional who can help.
  • Modify your activities for the winter. If yard work or gardening keeps you occupied in the summer, try finding activities that are more compatible with the season. Dressing warmly and going cycling, for example, is a great way to stay active and be outside.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. While cozying up with a pint of ice cream may sound like the best plan on a gloomy day, it’s not the best thing you can do for your health. Eating a diet that’s rich in nutrients, fruits and vegetables, and lean meats and fish goes a long way towards making you feel physically better during the dark days of winter. 

Learn More About Winter Blues with Baptist Health

If you’re experiencing signs and symptoms of winter blues or seasonal affective disorder, contact your nearest Baptist Health location today.


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