Skip to main content
dear doctor

Are the “Winter Blues” Real?

How to know if there’s a seasonal pattern to your depression—and what you can do about it.

Photo credit: Getty Images/tampatra

Q: It happens every year. As soon as the weather turns colder and it gets dark earlier, I feel really down and sad. It sometimes gets so bad that it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning, and making it through the day feels like a major chore. What is wrong with me, and what can I do about it?


“Feeling Blue”

Dear Feeling Blue:

What you’re describing is not uncommon, and it certainly seems to fit the pattern of what we used to call “seasonal affective disorder,” but now call a “seasonal pattern” to depression.

Some people notice symptoms of depression mainly in the fall and winter months, when the days are shorter and there is a lot less sunlight. They don’t feel this way other times of year. These symptoms can include not just feeling down in the dumps, but also overeating, craving carbohydrates and sleeping too much.

For it to qualify as depression, these symptoms need to be ongoing for at least a couple of weeks.

If you have a seasonal pattern to your depression, one of the most effective treatments is light therapy. This entails sitting in front of a special light box for 20 to 30 minutes a day, usually in the morning. Using a light box is more effective than, say, just sitting under a lamp with a bright light, because light boxes contain rays that are more like natural sunlight than standard light bulbs.

I also encourage my patients to get as much natural sunlight as they can during the winter months. Because the days are much shorter, you really need to maximize your time outside, and one of the best ways to do that is to participate in some sort of exercise. Regular physical activity is so great, not just for your physical health, but for your mental health, too. And exercise is also helpful in terms of establishing a regular routine, which is so beneficial when you’re feeling depressed.

Next, don’t isolate yourself. When you’re depressed, it’s natural to want to withdraw and just crawl into bed. But that will just reinforce the depression. It’s important to reach out to other people and have a good social support network in place for when you’re feeling down. Make a plan to walk with a friend, get a cup of coffee or talk on the phone. Staying connected will help.

Lastly, talk with your primary care physician. He or she may decide to refer you to a psychotherapist who can help you deal with your seasonal depression and even plan ahead for future winter seasons so you’re less likely to fall into depression.

“Because the days are much shorter, you really need to maximize your time outside.”
Alison Gilbert, PhD

Next Steps and Useful Resources

Published February 27th, 2018