It doesn’t take a meteorologist to confirm that weather affects mood. If it’s rainy, things can get a little gloomy, and if it’s sunny, there’s often an extra kick in our steps. But what happens when weather becomes a deal breaker? If the winter doldrums bring depression year after year, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) could be to blame.

Feeling Blue — The Need-To-Know

Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft

SAD is a form of seasonal depression that typically occurs during the winter months with symptoms weaning off during the spring and summer (though some people experience their most intense symptoms during the summer). Symptoms of SAD include decreased concentration, increased appetite, weight gain (whereas some other forms of depression can lead to weight loss), social withdrawal, moodiness, and fatigue. Though people sometimes write it off as simple moodiness, SAD is a real form of cyclical depression that is highly dependent on a person’s hormonal state, seasonal characteristics like ambient temperature, and exposure to natural light (which can influence the body’s production of melatonin). Research has linked the prevalence of SAD to higher latitudes, regions which tend to have more intense and longer winters Prevalence of seasonal affective disorder at four latitudes. Rosen, L. S., Targun, M., Terman, M., et al. Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD. Psychiatry Resource, 1990 Feb; 31(2): 131-44. .

Approximately one to two percent of the U.S. population suffers from SAD (compared with twice that rate in more-wintery Canada). Around 10 percent of the U.S. population also experiences subsyndromal SAD, a more mild form of the disorder often referred to as “winter blues.” And though SAD affects both sexes, women are about twice as likely to experience symptoms.

Turn That Frown Upside Down — Your Action Plan

SAD shouldn’t be confused with a mere inclination to hibernate like the rest of mammal-kind. It’s sometimes difficult to determine whether a bout of sadness is indeed an indication of SAD, so a doctor’s visit is the first step on the road to treatment. And because SAD symptoms are present in other forms of depression, it isn’t always diagnosed correctly. Physical symptoms, especially hormonal problems, can also mask the underlying issue.

Fortunately, there’s a range of treatments to help combat SAD:

  1. Let there be light. When a doctor prescribes it, a light therapy regimen can significantly reduce SAD symptoms, regardless of the condition’s severity Seasonal affective disorder. A description of the syndrome and preliminary findings with light therapy. Rosenthal, E., D. Sack, J. Gillin, A. Lewy, F. Goodwin, Y. Davenport, P. Mueller, D. Newsome, DT. Wehr. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1984 Jan; 41(1): 72-80. . But staring at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree won’t cut it— treatment for this condition comes in box form. Light therapy boxes range in brightness and type of light, so consult a physician before buying one.
  2. Talk it out. One study found cognitive behavioral therapy was just as effective as light therapy in treating SAD. (A combination of talk therapy and light therapy together was also effective.)
  3. Pop some pills. Antidepressants regulate neurotransmitters that control mood and energy. A psychiatrist can help decide if medication is an appropriate treatment option.
  4. Bust out. Spending time outdoors helps ease moderate symptoms of SAD. Try to get outside within two hours of waking up. Whether it’s cloudy or a sunshine day, spending some time in the daylight can be a big help.
  5. Walk the walk. Regular exercise can reduce symptoms of moderate, nonseasonal depression. And studies suggest a combination of exercise and light therapy can also help treat SAD. So put Titanic on pause and consider going for a jog instead Randomized trial of physical exercise alone or combined with bright light on mood and health-related quality of life. Partonen, T., Leppämäki, S., Hurme, J., et al. Department of Psychiatry, University of Helsinki, Finland. Psychological Medicine, 1998;28(6):1359-64. .
  6. Snag a bowlful of sunshine. Complex carbohydrates help maintain levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. (Eat those carbs in moderation, of course— it’s hard to feel chipper after a box of Chips Ahoy!)

Though cold weather is likely to have a lot of us wishing for spring, it’s important not to cast off SAD as an inevitable winter side effect. Taking action when symptoms hit could make the difference between a lonesome stretch and a happy winter season.

Shana Lebowitz contributed reporting.

Does your mood vary according to the season? How do you fight the blues? Tell us in the comments below!

Updated January 2012