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When it's more than just the "winter blues"

As seasons change, you may notice that your mental health does too. And while it may be easy to brush the change off as the “winter blues” or a seasonal slump, it may be something more.

With shorter days and longer nights, Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD or seasonal depression, commonly occurs as we transition from fall to winter as the number of daylight hours in a day decrease. Symptoms typically begin as soon as days get shorter, with medical professionals accrediting it to how lack of sunlight impacts the brain’s chemical makeup.  

If you or a loved one has experienced feelings of increased moodiness or sluggishness as the season changes, you could have SAD, but you’re not alone. In fact, according to Psychology Today, approximately 10 million Americans are estimated to be impacted by SAD.  Seasonal change especially fall-winter often worsens symptoms in folks who already have depression and other mood disorders. 

At Blue Cross NC, we’re working to improve treatment options, access to care and raise awareness of mental health conditions for North Carolinians across the state. By arming each other with the resources needed and information on these conditions, we can work together to tear down stigmas and provide care for those that need it.  

Here’s how you can recognize the signs of SAD and ways to manage the condition. 

Signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

While symptoms may not always present themselves in the same way, there are a few that commonly occur.  Fall-winter is the most common time associated with SAD.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, those symptoms are:  

  • Having Low Energy  
  • Hypersomnia 
  • Overeating
  • Weight Gain
  • Cravings for Carbohydrates  
  • Social Withdrawal  

Symptoms can differ when transitioning from spring to summer. However, SAD is less common during this seasonal change.  

How to treat and manage

If you or a loved one is or has experienced any of the above symptoms when transitioning from fall to winter, seek the help of your primary care provider or behavior health provider.  The provider can recommend tools and resources to help alleviate symptoms and manage the condition.  

  • Light Therapy: Since SAD symptoms typically begin as days get shorter, light therapy is often recommended as a treatment option. With light therapy, lightboxes are used to mimic sunlight typically experienced during the spring and summer. Medical professionals often recommend that anyone experiencing SAD symptoms sit in front of a lightbox for 30 to 60 minutes a day during the winter months. This is one of the most common treatment options for SAD and is typically the first thing recommended.  
  • Vitamin D: With Vitamin D often derived from sunlight, a Vitamin D deficiency can occur in the winter months, altering one’s mood. To help balance out the deficiency, physicians will sometimes prescribe Vitamin D supplements, which can be purchased at your local grocery store. 
  • Therapy: Talking to a professional counselor can provide emotional support and help alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety. 
  • Medication: In more severe cases of SAD, anti-depressants can be prescribed by a physician to help treat seasonal depression. 

While not always filled with sunshine and warm weather, the winter months are a time of holiday celebration, warm fires and, fingers crossed, snow flurries, don’t let seasonal depression hold you back. Seek help from a licensed professional and get back to doing the things you love with the people you love this winter.

Larry Wu, MD
Larry Wu, MD

Regional Medical Director

Larry is a regional medical director for Blue Cross NC providing consultative services for employee health solutions, prevention, chronic disease, care management, medical expense and utilization management. He's a family physician with over 20 years in clinical practice, has served as clinic director in the Indian Health Service, Kaiser Permanente and Duke Family Medicine and currently maintains a part-time clinical practice.

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