- Seasonal affective disorder and general lower mood in the winter months is common.
- For individuals with a seasonal depressive pattern, progression toward winter can feel daunting.
- Preventive strategies such as light exposure, exercise, and behavioral interventions can help.
Since childhood, I remember worriedly watching as we came closer to the end of the year. Winter. Sadness. As the days darkened, I would brace myself, expecting the cold both outside and inside.
As an adult, I understand depression. I recognize my own experiences with depression and my patterns. Still, I've often wondered, is this destiny? Can I break the cycle?
Seasonal mood changes are common both among healthy adults and those living with mood disorders. The most ubiquitous of these is a shift toward low moods as we enter winter. For some, this reaches a clinical level as in those with seasonal affective disorder. Wintertime depressive episodes are also common in people who experience other mood disorders such as major depression and bipolar disorder.
The reasons behind winter depression are somewhat mysterious. Lack of light, deficiency in Vitamin D3, circadian rhythm changes, and a decrease in activity may all play a role. Recent research, comparing individuals meeting the criteria for seasonal depression with those who only partially meet it and those without depression, has shown that changes in light may lead to circadian rhythm changes in those living with seasonal depression in a way that is not present in non-depressed individuals (Wescott et al, 2022). This showed up as both waking in the night and sleeping more than usual.
Other research has shown that Melatonin, an important moderator for both mood and sleep/wake cycles, is often secreted later in winter than in summer (Danilenko et al., 2019). Of interest, bright light therapy administered by a psychiatric provider for treatment of seasonal depression has been shown to alter when Melatonin is secreted by individuals experiencing seasonal depression (Thalén et al., 2020).
But can it be prevented?
It's difficult to measure something that doesn't happen. Yet some steps can be taken to lift your mood and fight back. Taking these steps early, before the depression hits, is ideal.
1. Seek Light
As the days get shorter, there naturally is less opportunity to get sunlight. Still, that doesn't mean that you can't. Taking even a few moments outside can get you some light. While research into the time effect of sunlight on depression is lacking, circadian rhythm hypotheses suggest that light earlier in the day may be of greatest efficacy (Lewy et al., 2022).
2. Take Account of What Lifts You
As the weather chills, we tend to withdraw more making us more vulnerable to depression. Reaching out to activities that you have enjoyed in the past and/or connecting with friends who give you joy pushes back against this pattern.
3. Balance Sleep
Among the hypothesized factors contributing to winter depression is our circadian rhythms. Exposure to sunlight balances our circadian rhythm and as this moves into winter all this changes. Research has shown that individuals living with seasonal affective disorder often sleep more in the winter and have a later sleep window (Escott et al., 2022). Try to keep your sleep window as consistent as possible by going to bed and getting up at around the same time each night and morning.
4. Find Things to Love in the Fall and Winter
There are many unique, beautiful things in the fall and winter. Leaves dance away from the tree branches before the branches become covered in snow. Many holidays fall at this time as well. While it might seem trivial, paying attention to these small marvels can bring forth more positive emotions.
5. Avoid Avoiding
It makes sense when we are feeling low for us not to want to do things we normally look forward to. This avoidance feeds depression. Resist the impulse to skip out but instead lean in.
6. Seek Help If You Need to, as Soon as Possible
If you find yourself in a true depression, seek help as soon as possible. Reaching out sooner rather than later can give you the best chance at feeling better.
While seasonal depression is common, there may be some preventative steps we can take. Treatments including psychotherapy, supplementation, and light therapy, provided under the supervision of a mental health professional, have all been shown effective. While over-the-counter interventions exist, it is important to seek the guidance of a medical professional before receiving light therapy or supplements due to potential risks and adverse events. Getting on top of this early is paramount.
Danilenko, K. V., Kobelev, E., Semenova, E. A., & Aftanas, L. I. (2019). Summer-winter difference in 24-h melatonin rhythms in subjects on a 5-workdays schedule in Siberia without daylight saving time transitions. Physiology & behavior, 212, 112686.
Lewy, A. J., Rough, J. N., Songer, J. B., Mishra, N., Yuhas, K., & Emens, J. S. (2022). The phase shift hypothesis for the circadian component of winter depression. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 9(3).
Thalén, B. E., Kjellman, B., & Wetterberg, L. (2020). Phototherapy and melatonin in relation to seasonal affective disorder and depression. In Melatonin (pp. 495-511). CRC Press.
Wescott, D. L., Wallace, M. L., Hasler, B. P., Klevens, A. M., Franzen, P. L., Hall, M. H., & Roecklein, K. A. (2022). Sleep and circadian rhythm profiles in seasonal depression. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 156, 114-121.