Understanding Seasonal Depression: More Than the Winter Blues

Nov 28, 2022

Cold weather can mean a SAD time of year for some.

After a few warm, sunny months, it’s that time of the year where we pack away our bathing suits and shake out our winter coats. While some people may be excited to enjoy activities in the snow, we’re not all fans of New England winters. If you find yourself feeling down or having less energy due to the cold weather and decreased daylight hours, you’re not alone.

But how do you know if you’re just ‘feeling blue’, dealing with depression, or perhaps experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD)? While it’s best to seek guidance from a healthcare professional, we can help break down the differences and offer strategies and resources to help you as the season changes.

Depression vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Depression can impact how you feel, the way you think, and how you act.

back of girl outside in winter wearing hat and jacket looking into the distanceSymptoms of major depression may include feeling sad most of the day every day, losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, changes in appetite or weight, problems with sleep, low energy, feeling hopeless or worthless, difficulty concentrating, and frequent thoughts of death or suicide. Depression isn’t the same as ‘feeling down in the dumps’, because for people living with depression, the feelings don’t subside.

SAD is one type of depression that changes with the season. SAD is associated with biochemical brain changes that occur with decreased sunlight and shifts in our internal clock (or circadian rhythm). People experiencing SAD may have some but not all signs or symptoms of depression. For most people with SAD, symptoms tend to start in the fall and continue through winter. People sometimes minimize the effects of SAD, thinking the feelings are normal during the winter months, but SAD can have a serious impact on your productivity and day-to-day life.

Relationship Between SAD and Substance Use

People with mental illness are more likely to experience a substance use disorder than those not affected by a mental illness. Research indicates that some individuals with alcohol use disorder will drink more heavily in a seasonal pattern, which may be associated with SAD. People experiencing SAD may find themselves turning to substances for self-medication instead of seeking professional help, thinking that these feelings will soon pass. However, self-medicating with substances can lead to addiction and make depression and anxiety symptoms worse.

Help is Available. Look After Loved Ones, Including Youth.

It is common to feel a decrease in energy and shift in mood during the colder months, but if it’s affecting your day-to-day life or you feel you don’t have enough energy to get through your day, talk with your healthcare provider or reach out to the resources at the bottom of this page. When people receive appropriate and timely mental health support and services, they live better lives.

Look out for signs of depression in loved ones, especially the youth in your life. Although mental illness and substance use can happen at any time during a person’s life, it typically starts in adolescence while the brain is still developing. High school students with depression are more than 2 times more likely to drop out than their peers and 56.6% of NH youth aged 12 to 17 who have depression reported they did not receive any care in the last year.

teen and adult male smiling talking to each other inside in front of christmas treeParents and caregivers are encouraged to have open communication with youth about mental health and substance use. Since there is often stigma attached, youth may feel ashamed to talk about how they are feeling mentally. Be present, listen for details, ask open ended questions, and restate what you heard. Let them know that mental health concerns are physical conditions that start with their brain, and seeing a healthcare professional can help them. For additional information, visit The Partnership’s ‘For Parents & Caregivers’ page and download our Fact Sheets.

Try these simple techniques to cope with feeling down or unmotivated during the winter months:

  • Eat well to feel more energized.
  • Make an effort to stay active for your body and mind.
  • Find a hobby you enjoy, and make time for it.
  • Spend time with people who make you happy. Spending time with loved ones in intervals or virtually can be just enough to give you the connection your mind is longing for.
  • Get as much natural sunlight as you can! We know it’s harder during the winter months, especially with busy schedules and earlier sunsets. When you can, open blinds or bundle up for short walks outside.
  • Celebrate winter for all the things you do love about it. Whether it’s wearing your favorite sweaters, trying some of our fun mocktail recipes, cooking a warm meal, sitting by the fireplace, or taking part in holiday traditions and festivities, try to remember the parts of winter that you do enjoy.
  • Last but not least, if you need help, get it! The sooner a person gets connected to support, the better the outcome. Remember, you are not alone.

Local Resources:

  • The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States. To access the lifeline, dial 988.
  • 2-1-1 NH is the connection for New Hampshire residents to the most up to date resources they need from specially trained Information and Referral Specialists. If you or someone you know is experiencing an addiction-related crisis, dial 211.
  • The Doorway NH: You are not alone. You are never far from help. The Doorway connects NH residents to help and services in NH for any alcohol or drug issue.
  • NAMI NH Resource Line helps connect individuals with with resources and supports in the Granite State. Callers are connected with trained NAMI NH Staff. This is not a hotline or a crisis service, but a phone line for families and individuals affected by mental illness/emotional disorders. To access the resource line, call 1-800-242-6264 (press 4).

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