Do I Have Seasonal Depression?

Ah, those summer evenings, when you can leave the office and spend three or four hours basking in the evening sun before winding down for the night… During winter, those days feel like a distant memory, and if your response to the change in seasons is particularly strong, you might wonder if you have seasonal depression.

It’s common to experience lethargy and to feel an overall dampening of your spirit when the dark of winter begins to set in – it’s been estimated that seasonal depression affects 10 million Americans, with women diagnosed four times as often.

So how do you know if what you’re dealing with is just sluggishness or sadness, or if it’s a form of seasonal depression? And how can you feel better, and maybe even find some new joy in the winter months?

What is seasonal depression?

Seasonal depression is a common term for the diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a type of depression experienced when the seasons change. People who experience serious mood changes as the weather shifts into winter may have winter-pattern SAD, also known as the “winter blues.” It’s less common, but there are also people who have summer-pattern SAD, where their mood shifts as they enter the spring and summer months. 

How to tell if you have seasonal depression

The symptoms of seasonal depression are similar to the symptoms of chronic depression, so you might recognize them more easily if you’ve been depressed before. General depression symptoms include:

  • Feeling depressed every day for most of the day
  • Loss of interest in the things that used to bring you joy
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Hopelessness, worry, or fear
  • Sluggishness, fatigue, or slower movements
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Self-harm or suicidal thoughts

Winter-pattern seasonal depression may also cause these additional symptoms:

  • Increased appetite, especially for carbs and sweets
  • Weight gain 
  • Increased sleep needs
  • Social isolation

Summer-pattern SAD might show up with these symptoms:

  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety

What to do about your seasonal depression

If you suspect you have seasonal depression, there are a few things you can do – which one you start with will depend on the severity of your symptoms.

If you’re just feeling a bit ‘off’ as the days shorten and you think it might be down to a mild case of winter-pattern SAD, you might try light therapy. This is a method of replacing the sunshine lost during the winter months with a very bright artificial light. The best tool for this is a SAD light therapy box – it’ll need to be 10,000 lux or higher and produce as little UV light as possible – which you sit in front of for 30-45 minutes a day beginning when the days start to shorten in the fall. 

Some things to note about light therapy:

  • Research suggests it’s only effective if you do it immediately after you wake up, for 30 full minutes, every day. If you use a SAD lamp at inconsistent times it can actually mess up your circadian rhythm and affect your sleep. So talk to your doctor before committing to light therapy, and try to be realistic about your ability to remain consistent.
  • SAD lamps aren’t regulated in any way, and there are a ton of products on the market that don’t meet the necessary specifications for light therapy. So make sure you do your due diligence when researching which light box to buy (this is another situation where asking your doctor is probably your best bet).

If your symptoms are bothering you enough to affect your quality of life or interfere with your work or personal life, you should talk to your doctor or find a qualified mental health provider. Light therapy is still a great option, but you’ll benefit even more from adding professional support to the mix, or even medication, if your symptoms are severe and your doctor thinks it could help.

The best treatment for SAD is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. The SAD adaptation of CBT focuses on reframing negative thoughts about the seasons changing and encouraging positive coping mechanisms to improve patients’ perception of the winter (or summer, if you have summer-pattern SAD) months. CBT-SAD has been found to be as effective as light therapy, with longer-lasting results – and that’s just for winter-pattern SAD. If you have summer-pattern seasonal depression, light therapy is unlikely to do much good, so CBT is definitely your best bet.

As a bonus, CBT is super effective for all kinds of other mental health issues, so you might see improvement in areas you didn’t expect! Our coaches help clients with everything from anxiety and work stress to self esteem and relationship issues, and everything in between. 

If you’re looking for emotional support for seasonal depression or anything else you’re struggling with, we can help! At Prospera, our mental health coaches combine empathy and compassion with CBT tools and exercises to help clients feel better faster and achieve their wellness goals in less time.

If you think Prospera might be right for you, why not give us a try? Book your free consultation today.

Content reviewed by Dr. Sarah Stanger, Clinical Psychologist

Anne Godenham is a writer and editor with a passion for mental health awareness and accessibility