Identifying the winter blues vs. seasonal depression

The winter blues and seasonal depression (also known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD) are two different conditions. Knowing the difference can help a person feel better sooner.

A female-presenting person outside in a coat at dusk.
Photo: Pexels/Tobi.

When the excitement of the holiday season is over, it is normal to feel a little sad. Decorations have been taken down, the house looks ordinary, fun holiday gatherings on your calendar have ceased and the weather may be lousy. The letdown from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is typical and felt by many. It is sometimes referred to as the winter blues. However, it is important to keep in mind that the winter blues is different from seasonal depression. 

The National Institutes of Health states that the winter blues is usually tied to something specific such as, missing a loved one and financial burden or family stress during the holidays. The winter blues is not a medical diagnosis, is common, and is usually gone in a short amount of time.

Seasonal depression, however, is a mental health condition triggered by the changing of the seasons. It involves sadness, little interest or enjoyment from usual daily life, low energy level, tendency to gain weight and an increase in sleeping. Risks associated with seasonal depression or SAD include younger people and women. Additionally, your risk increases if you experience another mental health condition, have relatives with seasonal depression or other mental health conditions, or live in northern climates that experience less sunlight at certain times during the year.

Seasonal depression is a clinical diagnosis and can interfere with everyday living for an extended period, including how you think and feel. A person with seasonal depression needs to be in contact with a healthcare provider or mental health professional. Treatments for seasonal depression are available and include options such as, light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant medications.  

A case of the winter blues is temporary and can be managed on your own with some effort. Kaiser Permanente physician, Amado Daylo, MD, recommends the following eight strategies to overcome the winter blues:

  • Exercise. Bundle up for a walk, swim indoors or head to the gym. Exercise can work as well as antidepressants (drugs to control a person’s mood) in fighting mild-to-moderate depression.
  • Check your vitamin D levels. Sunlight is a source of vitamin D, a nutrient linked to sharper thinking and better emotional health. Check with your doctor about whether a vitamin D supplement is right for you.
  • Get some light therapy. Give yourself every opportunity for daylight, such as placing exercise equipment or your work area near a window. Lamps that simulate natural light can also help.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, can boost your energy and are vital year-round. Fruits and veggies of deep green or orange, like broccoli, kale and carrots, have nutrients that promote better mood and total health.
  • Stimulate your senses. Some people find that painting their walls a bright color — or even their nails — can improve their outlook. Scents can add to your feeling of well-being; try peppermint essential oil or some other energizing scent.
  • Nurture your spirit. Slow down and curl up in a cozy chair with a good book or write in your journal.
  • Head to a sunnier climate. If time and budget allow, plan a midwinter visit to a warmer, sunnier climate.
  • See a therapist. A therapist can help you train your brain to think more positively, which can also make you feel better physically.

In the new year, prioritize taking care of you — especially during the winter months. Be kind to yourself and be patient. Feeling better takes time as it’s a gradual process. Michigan State University Extension offers educational programming such as Mental Health First Aid, Stress Less with Mindfulness, and Tai Chi that may help you through the winter blues. Please visit our website to learn more about online and in-person programs.

Did you find this article useful?