Main Street News


By Published On: January 2nd, 2024

The end of daylight-saving time officially means shorter days with more darkness and less sunlight. For many of us, that means we’re getting up in the morning in the dark and coming home in the dark, which can take an undeniable toll on mental health and make us feel tired and generally uninspired. 

For some, a change in the season causes seasonal affective disorder, which is a mood disorder characterized by depression that occurs at the same time each year. According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD is very common, affecting more than three million people in the United States each year. It typically occurs in climates where there is less sunlight at certain times of the year. 

What is seasonal affective disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “in most cases, SAD symptoms start in the late fall or early winter and go away during the spring and summer, known as winter-pattern SAD or winter depression. Other people experience depressive symptoms during the spring and summer months, known as summer-pattern SAD or summer depression. Summer-pattern SAD is less common.” 

SAD symptoms last four to five months out of the year, or typically for the length of the season during which it’s occurring. Symptoms can vary for winter-pattern versus summer-pattern, and not all symptoms will present for everyone. Many symptoms of depression overlap with symptoms of SAD, which can make it difficult to differentiate between the two. 

General symptoms of depression can include persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood; feelings of hopelessness, irritability, or guilt; loss of interest in hobbies and activities; and decreased energy. 

For winter-pattern SAD, additional symptoms typically include “oversleeping, overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates, leading to weight gain, and social withdrawal (feeling like ‘hibernating’).” For summer-pattern SAD, additional symptoms typically include, “trouble sleeping, poor appetite leading to weight loss, restlessness and agitation, anxiety, or violent and aggressive behavior.” 

NAMI also states that winter-pattern SAD is occasionally confused with ‘holiday blues’ or feelings of sadness or anxiety brought on by holiday stresses. “The depression associated with SAD is related to changes to daylight hours, not the calendar, so stresses associated with the holidays or predictable seasonal changes in work or school schedules, family visits, and so forth are not the same as SAD.”

Medical treatments

According to the Mayo Clinic, common treatments for seasonal affective disorder include light therapy, psychotherapy, and medication. 

Light therapy, also occasionally referred to as phototherapy, is one of the most common treatments for SAD. According to the Mayo Clinic, “you sit a few feet from a special light box so that you’re exposed to bright light within the first hour of waking up each day. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. It generally starts working in a few days to a few weeks and causes very few side effects.” 

Scientific research about light therapy is very limited, but from what scientists have found, it seems to be effective in relieving symptoms of SAD. 

Another common treatment is psychotherapy, also referred to as talk therapy or just simply therapy. The Mayo Clinic states that psychotherapy is beneficial to “learn healthy ways to cope with SAD, especially with reducing avoidance behavior and scheduling meaningful activities; identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be making you feel worse; learn how to manage stress; and build healthy behaviors.”

Other self-care

There are also other things that you can do at home to help treat SAD. First, try reconnecting with a hobby, especially if it’s something that you can physically do, rather than spending time staring at a screen, which can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. 

Next, do everything you can to make your environment brighter. Open your blinds during the day and try to sit closer to windows while at home or working at the office. Speaking of sunlight, try to get outside and get some fresh air during work breaks. Take a walk, eat your lunch, or just stand outside. Even if it’s cloudy, outdoor light still benefits us differently from indoor light. Bonus points if you can manage to spend some time outside within the first two hours of getting up in the morning, as that can help regulate your circadian rhythm.

Exercising regularly can also help reduce symptoms. Whatever your preferred physical activity is, it can relieve feelings of stress and anxiety, release endorphins (also known as the “happy hormones”), and help regulate your sleep schedule. 

Speaking of sleeping, do your best to regulate your sleep patterns. A recent study published in the journal Frontiers of Neuroscience reports that humans need more sleep in the winter than in other seasons. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is one of the best ways to achieve better sleep overall and reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety. Getting more sleep at night can also eliminate the urge to nap during the day or to oversleep in the morning. 

Final thoughts

However you feel this winter, make sure to be patient with yourself. Take time to get more rest if you need it, get active however you can, and get enough vitamin D. Be kind to yourself and your body. The sunshine will be back soon enough! •

*Disclaimer: All medical claims made in this article are information provided by the sources listed. The information is general in nature and not specifically meant for any particular individual. You should always seek out medical assistance from a medical professional based on your individual needs and circumstances.