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Shedding Light on Seasonal Sadness

Monday, January 29th, 2024

by Bethany Eggers, MA, LPC-MH



Winter is a season that brings with it chilly temperatures, shorter days, and a change in mood for many people. As the days get shorter and darkness sets in earlier, some individuals find themselves feeling down and lacking energy. This phenomenon is often referred to as the "winter blues" or, in more severe cases, seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

Dr. Matthew Rudorfer, a mental health expert at the National Institutes of Health, explains that the winter blues are typically linked to specific factors such as stressful holidays or reminders of absent loved ones. This condition tends to resolve on its own within a short period, as the season transitions to spring and summer. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a more severe form of seasonal mood changes that follows a regular pattern. It is considered a well-defined clinical diagnosis and is directly related to the shortening of daylight hours. SAD can significantly interfere with daily functioning and persist for several months, usually from fall to winter.  According to Dr. Rudorfer, SAD is more prevalent in northern parts of the United States, where winter days are shorter. For example, in Alaska, approximately 10% of the population may be affected by SAD, while in Florida, only about 1% may experience this disorder. The symptoms of SAD include persistent feelings of sadness, loss of interest in activities, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, low energy, difficulty concentrating, and even weight gain.

Our circadian rhythm is influenced by cues in our environment, especially light and darkness. During the day, our brain sends signals to keep us awake and alert, while at night, a tiny gland in the brain called the pineal gland produces the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate sleep. In the winter, with shorter daylight hours, the natural rhythm can be thrown off, leading to an overproduction of melatonin and feelings of fatigue and drowsiness.

Here are some self-care strategies to consider while we wait for the sun to stay out just a little bit longer:

  • Spending Time Outdoors: Even in the colder months, it's important to spend time outside and get fresh air. Taking a short walk or engaging in outdoor activities can help boost mood and provide exposure to natural light.
  • Optimizing Indoor Lighting: Opening blinds or window shades during the day to let in natural light can help regulate the circadian rhythm. Using bright indoor lighting can also help compensate for the reduced sunlight during winter.
  • Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle: Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and prioritizing good sleep hygiene are essential for overall well-being. A healthy lifestyle can positively influence mood and energy levels.
  • Socializing and Engaging in Activities: Making an effort to stay socially connected and participate in activities that bring joy and fulfillment can help combat feelings of isolation and low mood. Planning activities with friends and family, joining clubs or groups, or volunteering can provide a sense of purpose and connection.
  • Mindfulness and Stress Reduction: Incorporating mindfulness practices, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or journaling, can help reduce stress and enhance emotional well-being. These practices promote relaxation and self-reflection, allowing individuals to better manage their emotions and cope with seasonal changes.
  • Seeking Support: Talking to friends, family, or a mental health professional about your experiences with the winter blues or SAD can provide valuable support. Sharing your feelings and concerns can help alleviate the sense of isolation and provide an opportunity for guidance and understanding.

In conclusion, winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder are common conditions that affect many individuals during the colder months. While the winter blues may be milder and resolve on their own, SAD can significantly impact one's daily life and well-being. Understanding the causes and symptoms of these conditions, as well as implementing effective treatment strategies, can help individuals better manage and alleviate the seasonal mood changes. Remember, you don't have to suffer in silence; help is available to support you through the darker months of the year.

At all four of our locations - River Counseling Services in Platte, Sioux Falls Psychological Services, and Stronghold Counseling Services in Sioux Falls and in Yankton, our mission is this- we meet you where you are, offering hope.  You may schedule an appointment at the Platte office at 605-337-3444 or meet with one of our Sioux Falls or Yankton based therapists from your computer, smartphone, or in person at any of our clinics. To schedule an appointment, please call 605-334-2696.