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Does winter make you S.A.D.?

This page uploaded 7 May 2013

By Georgette
ADAVIC Volunteer

It's not unusual for people to dread the passing of summer and the onset of winter. Pleasant nights spent outdoors are replaced by colder, darker evenings forcing us all to spend more time indoors. For some people however, disliking winter can be much more than merely missing balmy weather and summer activities. Winter can become a cruelly debilitating and isolating time as they try to handle symptoms associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D).

S.A.D, also known as "winter depression," is a recurring form of depression that hits around the same time each year. For most people, it strikes in the fall or winter and will not subside until springtime; it can occur in the summer months, but this is extremely rare.

Symptoms of S.A.D are not easy to distinguish; however, there are a number of symptoms which, when combined, can be helpful in diagnosing the disorder. These include:
  • Sleep disorder: You are so tired that you must take afternoon naps. Furthermore, you oversleep but do not feel refreshed. You also feel lethargic, in the sense that you lack energy, are not productive, and everything you do takes extra effort.
  • Physical ailments: You feel pain in your joints, have stomach problems, gain weight, and are more vulnerable to infections.
  • Depression: You are constantly sad, cranky and irritable. You withdraw from friends and family, and prefer solitude. You don't feel strongly about anything, while simultaneously experiencing feelings of guilt, anxiety and hopelessness.
  • Behavioural disorder: You can't get anything done, concentration becomes difficult, your appetite increases, you crave  carbohydrates (pasta, sweets, bread), and you lose interest in sex.
The behaviour associated with S.A.D is quite different from the mood changes a lot of people experience because of the change of season and the disruptions to their summer lifestyle. With S.A.D, the depression symptoms are more about 'slowing down'. People sleep more, eat more and usually crave carbohydrates which lead to weight gain. They'll have a lot less energy and won't want to spend time with others. S.A.D has a cluster of symptoms that makes the person look like they are going into 'hibernation’.
A lack of sunlight appears to be a crucial factor. It is believed that the increased darkness during the winter months forces the brain's pineal gland to secrete the sleep-related hormone melatonin, which may cause symptoms of depression. It is believed that the source of S.A.D could be found in a disturbance of the body's natural biological clock. These circadian rhythms could also be linked to problems with the regulation of serotonin neurotransmitters in the brain. It's important for people to get up in the morning and get some exposure to sunlight, ideally before 8am. Dawn and morning light is believed to be integral in regulating our biorhythms. Combining this with exercise is really important.
The treatment for S.A.D is the same as for other types of depression. This includes: antidepressant medication, psychological therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy, and physical activity. In addition, bright light therapy has been used for seasonal affective disorder.
Things you can try

  • Boosting your exercise in the winter will provide a powerful lift to your mood and your energy. If your atmosphere or occupation makes it difficult to be active outside during the day, find ways to work out at home or in the gym.
  • Combine lean protein and complex carbohydrates in your meals.
  • Limit your consumption of alcohol, sugar, and high-fat foods, all of which may temporarily lift your mood but then leave you feeling tired soon after.
  • Learning to think less negatively will help improve your mood.
  • If you notice yourself feeling less peppy or enthusiastic during the winter, you can accept that feeling as a normal response to the dark and cold of winter without getting down on yourself about it. You can also respond to negative thoughts like "I hate winter," and "I can't deal with this," or "winter is never going to end" with "I know what to do to feel better" and "winter is a challenge, and I become stronger by meeting the challenge."
  • When the world seems colder and darker, your connections with friends and family can supply the love, warmth, and stimulation to help sustain you.
  • Try meditation or inspirational reading, providing inner light that can enlighten your journey through the darker days of winter.
If you are experiencing significant seasonal depression or have a recurrent pattern of seasonal depression, you may benefit from consulting with a psychologist or mental health counsellor who specialises in treating mood disorders. You can find a qualified practitioner by contacting your local GP or by calling ADAVIC.


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