Skip to the content

Admission Line 888-255-9280

Am I Struggling with Seasonal Depression?

It's that time of year again. The leaves are changing color, the air is getting colder, and Pumpkin Spice Lattes are back in season. Soon after comes the shorter days with colder temperatures. For some, winter is a welcome seasonal change. But for others, it represents the beginnings of a far darker time of the year—seasonal depression.

If you’re one of the sufferers of seasonal depression, don't worry—you're not alone. Read on to find out more about seasonal depression and what you can do to manage it.

What is Seasonal Depression?

Seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a form of major depressive disorder that typically occurs during the fall and winter months. However, it's not uncommon to see people diagnosed with SAD during the spring and summer seasons.

SAD is one of the most common types of depression. It affects 5% of Americans of all ages annually but is most commonly diagnosed in young and middle-aged adults—that is, persons between 20 and 30 years old. Seasonal depression diagnoses in women are also four times more common than in men.

What Causes Seasonal Depression?

While the exact cause of seasonal depression is unknown, there are several theories as to what might contribute to its development.

One theory suggests that the change in seasons can disrupt our body's natural circadian rhythm, which is responsible for regulating our sleep-wake cycle. Such disruption can lead to feelings of fatigue and low energy, which are common symptoms of seasonal depression.

Another theory points to our tendency to spend more time indoors during the colder months. This lack of exposure to natural light can also disrupt our circadian rhythm and lead to feelings of depression.

A third theory proposes that the change in seasons can impact our serotonin levels. This neurotransmitter plays a role in mood regulation. Serotonin levels are known to be lower in the winter months, which can lead to feelings of depression.

How is Seasonal Depression Different from Major Depressive Disorder?

While seasonal depression and major depressive disorder share many similarities, there are a few key ways in which they differ. For starters, seasonal depression is much more common than major depressive disorder. In fact, the latter affects roughly 21 million American adults, while the former impacts 10 million American adults.

Another critical difference between the two disorders is that seasonal change often triggers seasonal depression. In contrast, major depressive disorder can occur at any time and is not typically tied to any one trigger.

Seasonal depression is also more likely to cause physical symptoms such as fatigue and low energy. At the same time, major depressive disorder is more likely to cause psychological symptoms such as a loss of interest in activities and feelings of hopelessness.

What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Depression?

Seasonal depression can present itself in a variety of ways. Some people may only experience mild symptoms, while others may find theirs more severe.

Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleep issues
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Persistent sadness or emptiness
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in appetite or weight

If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, consult a doctor or mental health professional. They can determine whether or not you are suffering from seasonal depression or another type of mental health disorder and will properly diagnose you and offer the best treatment options.

How is Seasonal Depression Diagnosed?

The first step is to see a doctor or mental health professional if you believe you may suffer from seasonal depression. They will ask you questions (medical history) about your symptoms and will likely give you a physical exam to rule out any other possible causes, such as clinical depression or bipolar disorder.

You may also be asked to complete a questionnaire about your symptoms, such as the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire. It will help your doctor determine whether or not you are suffering from seasonal depression. Your physician may also ask you to keep a mood diary to track your symptoms over time to help them determine if they are periodical or occur year-round. 

Once you have been diagnosed with seasonal depression, your doctor will work with you to develop a treatment plan. It may include a combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes.

But for those who don't have immediate access to a doctor or mental health professional, there are some things you can do on your own to check if you're suffering from seasonal depression.

You can start by taking Jackson House's online seasonal depression quiz. It will ask you questions about your symptoms and help you determine whether or not you are suffering from seasonal depression.

But remember that the result of this quiz is not a diagnosis. It is still essential to see a doctor or mental health professional if you believe you may be suffering from SAD.

What are the Treatment Options for Seasonal Depression?

There are many ways to treat seasonal depression. Some people may only require one treatment, while others may need a combination of remedies.

Some of the most common treatment options for seasonal depression include:

Light Therapy

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a type of treatment that involves exposing the eyes to artificial light. Professionals do this by using a light box, which emits light that is brighter than natural light but not as bright as direct sunlight.

Light therapy has been found to be an effective treatment for seasonal depression. It is usually done for 30 minutes to 1 hour per day, and the timing depends on the severity of the depression.

For example, people with mild seasonal depression may only need light therapy for a few days, while those with more severe seasonal depression may need to do it for several weeks. Your doctor will work with you to determine the best timing and duration of light therapy for you.

As for its efficacy, Harvard Medical School's Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Dr. Richard S. Schwartz, says light therapy can be as effective as antidepressant medication and psychotherapy. Patients who undergo the procedure report feeling relief from their symptoms within days, resulting in long-lasting effects.

Side effects are also mild and rare and may include only headache, dizziness, and eyestrain. Compared to the ones posed by antidepressant medications, these side effects make light therapy a much safer treatment option for those who want to avoid more adverse effects like weight gain, sexual dysfunction, and gastrointestinal issues.

Medication

Several different types of medications can be used to treat seasonal depression. The most common type of medication used is antidepressants—specifically, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

SSRI antidepressants work by altering serotonin levels in the brain responsible for mood or happiness. They can take several weeks to start working, and they may need to be taken for several months to a year to be effective. Some people may also need to try a few different types or brands of antidepressants before finding one that works for them.

The side effects of antidepressants vary from person to person, but they may include the following:

  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Sexual side effects
  • Drowsiness or fatigue
  • Anxiety or agitation
  • Blurred vision

Vitamins, such as Vitamin D, and herbal supplements, such as St. John's wort, are other types of medication that may be used to treat seasonal depression.  

There are also drugs that patients can take to help prevent seasonal depression. One such prescription is an extended-release version of the antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin XL, Aplenzin). This drug effectively prevents depressive episodes in people with a history of SAD.

Doctors typically instruct people with seasonal depression to take bupropion starting two or three weeks before the start of the winter season until the end of the season. The usual dosage is one tablet (bupropion hydrochloride extended-release) once a day, although some people may need to take two daily.

Bupropion is not without side effects, however. The most common ones include drowsiness, nausea, trouble sleeping, excitement, and headache. Other side effects may include dry mouth, vomiting, and ringing in the ears.

Other types of antidepressants that may be used to treat seasonal depression include sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), and paroxetine (Paxil). These drugs are typically taken once a day and may take several weeks to start working.

As with all medications, never change your dose or stop taking your medication without first talking to your doctor. Doing so may cause the symptoms of seasonal depression to come back, or it may cause other serious side effects.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is another treatment option for seasonal depression. This therapy involves meeting with a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor, to talk about your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Patients may also do it in individual or group setting sessions.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy (BST-SAD) that can be particularly helpful in treating seasonal depression. CBT-SAD works by helping patients do the following:

  • Identify and change negative thought patterns
  • Develop healthy coping mechanisms, such as problem-solving and stress management
  • Recognize and avoid triggers

For CBT-SAD to be effective, it typically needs to be done for at least several weeks. But once you've learned the skills, you can use them to reduce or prevent seasonal depression for at least two winter seasons.

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain's pineal gland. It helps to regulate the body's sleep-wake cycle.

Some evidence suggests that taking melatonin supplements may help reduce the symptoms of seasonal depression. It is found to be helpful in patients involved in small trials, but there is still no definitive evidence that it is or is not an effective treatment.

As for melatonin's safety, it is generally considered safe when taken in small doses for a short period. However, since there is no long-term research on its safety, talk to your doctor and take precautionary measures if you're thinking about taking it.

Melatonin's side effects are also rare, but they can include drowsiness, headaches, and nausea. It is also fairly safe for children, as no reports or studies indicate it has harmed them.

Ways to Help Relieve Symptoms

There are also some things you can do on your own to help relieve the symptoms of seasonal depression:

  • Get regular exercise. Exercise can help improve your mood and increase energy levels. Just be sure to start slowly and build up gradually if you need to get used to exercising.
  • Make sure you're getting enough sleep. Seasonal depression can cause fatigue and make it hard to get a good night's sleep. But getting enough bedtime can help improve your mood and energy levels.
  • Eat a healthy diet. A good one can help improve your mood and increase energy levels.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. These can make seasonal depression worse while leading to other more severe problems, such as addiction.
  • Ensure you're getting enough Vitamin D. Vitamin D is found in foods like fatty fish, egg yolks, and fortified milk. It's also made by your body when your skin is exposed to sunlight. Take note: Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to seasonal depression.
  • Make your environment as light and cheerful as possible. Open the curtains and let in as much natural light as possible. Consider using a light therapy box that emits a bright light to help improve your mood.
  • Avoid social isolation. Spend time with family and friends. Connecting with others can help improve your mood.

When to See a Doctor

Consult a doctor as soon as possible if your seasonal depression is starting to interfere with your daily life or if you have thoughts of suicide. Your primary care doctor can screen for depression and make a referral to a mental health specialist if necessary.

While self-care measures and lifestyle changes can help, you may need medication to get through the winter. The earlier you start treatment, the better. Seasonal depression can worsen over time, so getting help as soon as possible is important. Don't hesitate to talk to your doctor about your options.

Reach out to us at Jackson House if you or a loved one are struggling with seasonal depression. Our team of caring professionals can help you get through this tough time. Call us today at (888) 255-9280 to learn more about our services.

About the author

Jackson House

Jackson House

We built Jackson House because we realized there was a critical gap in our healthcare system and many individuals with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems were struggling because of it. While there are many outpatient treatment options and locked, inpatient facilities there was nothing in the middle. Nothing to help people who needed around the clock care but wanted to receive treatment voluntarily, on their own terms. Jackson House is different. We provide clients with the level of care they need in a welcoming environment. When you walk through our doors, we will meet you wherever you’re at and help you on your journey toward feeling better.

It's time to feel better

We are here to help and we are in-network with most insurance providers. Call us for a free and confidential consultation.

The 'First name' field is required
The 'Last name' field is required
Please enter a valid Email address

If you’re a provider and need to send us information on a client, please feel free to fax us at 619-303-7044. If you need help immediately, call our 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-766-4274. If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Jackson House is licensed by the State of California Community Care Licensing Division and certified by the Department of Health Care Services. We are also CARF Accredited. If you have any client or quality of care concerns, please reach out to us at (888) 255-9280. If your concerns need further attention, you can contact the Department of Public Health at 619-278-3700 or the Community Care Licensing Division at 1-844-538-8766.