Winter Blues vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Winter can bring on more than a shift of seasons, cooler temperatures, and shorter days… The numerous seasonal and lifestyle changes that accompany the winter season can bring on a change in mood as well. There’s been a lot of research on “winter blues” — and the more serious seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — that impact people during the darkest time of the year.

Winter Blues

Dr. Therese Mascardo, Psy.D., CEO of Exploring Therapy defines Winter Blues as “non-clinical names people have used in recent history to describe the phenomenon of experiencing symptoms of anxiety and low mood during the winter months.”

Symptoms of Winter Blues:

  • low mood and depression
  • anxiety and excessive worry
  • irritability
  • lethargy, sleepiness, and fatigue
  • loss of interest in everyday activities

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

The National Institute of Mental Health defines Seasonal Affective Disorder as “a type of depression/mood disorder that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.”

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:

  • Depressed mood, low self-esteem
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Feeling angry, irritable, stressed, or anxious
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Changes in sleeping pattern
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and lack of energy; reduced sex drive
  • Use of drugs or alcohol for comfort
  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair

As we mentioned above, this blog is for informational purposes only, however, if your depression and/or anxiety feels overwhelming and is adversely affecting your life, it’s time to seek help from a professional.

For most people “winter blues” won’t reach a diagnosable SAD level, but there are definite changes that happen in the fall/winter to impact our energy, mood, metabolism, and sleep habits.

Factors Contributing to Winter Blues

  • Change in routine.
  • The start of a new school year.
  • Cold and flu season (and currently the coronavirus.)
  • The election season and political events.
  • Anticipating winter holidays, family gatherings, and party season.
  • The aftermath of winter holidays, family gatherings, and party season.
  • The excitement of the holidays being over.
  • Cold weather and decreased sunlight/vitamin D deficiency.
  • Increase in the hormone melatonin, which leads to sleepiness.
Drawing of a family cleaning a living room.

These simple tips can be helpful in lessening, or perhaps even, preventing the winter blues:

 -Make sure your home is a clean, welcoming, and enjoyable space-

While many people do a major ‘Spring Cleaning” session, winter is also a great time to overhaul your living space. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the physical action of housekeeping and the end result of a cleaner home helps relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. This could be due to the fact that cleaning gives people a sense of mastery and control over their environment, life is full of uncertainty and many situations are out of our hands, but at least we can assert our will on our living space. Whatever the reasons, the end result of a “Winter Cleaning” can provide a feeling of accomplishment as well as prepares your space for several months of indoor-focused living.

Drawing showing no screentime.

-Cut back on screen-time/Manage your screen-time-

Cold weather often means we spend more time indoors, and that tempts us to spend more time watching television, looking at our computer screen, or playing on our phone/tablet. Too much screen time diminishes mood, builds fatigue, and creates too many distractions. Try making a point to put down devices and step away from screens.

Drawing showing people lifting weights,  and jumping rope.

-Move your body-

Whether you’re indoors or outdoors there are many positive psychological and physical benefits of regular exercise, including elevated mood and self-esteem, as well as a decrease in anxiety, depression and stress levels.

And, exercise strengthens the immune system, helps you maintain a healthy weight and reduces your risks for colon, breast and endometrial cancers. You should aim for at least two and a half hours of moderate physical activity each week.

Drawing of the four seasons.

-Get outside-

Spending time outdoors, even as little as 15 minutes a day, is an excellent help with the winter blues. – Just a few minutes a day has been proven to improve both our moods and our physical health, leading to reduced stress and increased self-esteem.

According to Kathryn A. Roecklein, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, going outside can increase positive mood and alleviate depression, because natural daylight does a bang-up job of raising your serotonin (one of your body’s feel-good chemicals) levels.

Sunlight also provides much needed Vitamin D, which brings us to our next tip!

Poster showing sources of vitamin D.

-Increase your Vitamin D intake-

Vitamin D is found in cells throughout your entire body. Bones need it to grow, muscles need it to move, nerves need it to carry messages between the brain and every body part, and the immune system needs it to fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Along with the harm a lack of Vitamin D can do to your body, numerous studies have also linked Vitamin D deficiencies to anxiety and depression. – How do you get more D? Get outside, open your curtains, buy sunlight simulation lightbulbs.

How can you increase your vitamin D?

The best way is the tip above: Get outside!

Other ways: Open your curtains, bring more vitamin D into your diet*, take Vitamin D3 supplements (D2 is Vegan friendly), use an Ultraviolet (UV) lamp/Light therapy, or use sunlight simulation lightbulbs.

 *Fatty fish and seafood, dairy, egg yolks, mushrooms, Vitamin D fortified foods (such a nut-milks, soy milk, orange juice, cereal, and tofu)

Vector drawing of a woman practicing yoga.

-Practice relaxation techniques-

Meditation, yoga, and prayer are all extremely effective ways to calm the body and mind. In the morning, they can help you feel focused and more energized for the day. In the evening, they can help clear the mind of the day’s worries allowing you to focus on the most important task at hand: sleep.

Other forms of relaxation techniques are: guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, slow/deliberate breathing, massage, or self-hypnosis.

According to Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor and director of Integrative Medicine at MD Anderson just five minutes of meditation can help you manage stress.

There are many online tutorials that teach you the basics of meditation. (You can find guided meditations from the Benson-Henry Institute at

Cat napping.

-Get a good night’s rest-

Sleep is essential – It is as important to our bodies as eating, drinking and breathing, and is vital for maintaining good mental and physical health. Sleeping helps us to recover from mental as well as physical exertion. Up to one third of the population may suffer from insomnia (lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep) or other sleep problems. These can affect mood, judgement, energy and concentration levels, our relationships, and our ability to stay awake/ function at school or work during the day.

Photo of an alarm clock.

-Set your alarm clock and stick to a sleep routine-

One of the most underestimated yet effective ways to improve sleep is by sticking to a regular schedule when it comes to sleep and wake times. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps to establish a pattern and balances the body’s internal master clock. Over time, maintaining this routine may help you to wake up feeling more alert and cut down on the time it takes to fall asleep at night.

Here is a list of tips for getting a restful night’s sleep from the Sleep Foundation:

Photo of fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy and bread.

 -Improve your diet-

According to Dr. Uma Naidoo, M.D., director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, “Food and nutrition are powerful tools within our control to help our mental well-being.” Eating smart and healthy is one way to help improve mood. Not only do we feel good about ourselves for making a good decision for our bodies, but also nutrients from eating the right foods have physiological effects that put us in a better mood. For example, good carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits and vegetables), fish, and vitamin D are among some of the foods that increase serotonin levels in the brain, which in turn elevates mood.

Vector drawing promoting volunteering.

-Help others-

Volunteers experience greater satisfaction with life and life purpose, increased self-confidence, and a greater sense of identity. By using their time, skills and energy to be of service to others, they not only help people but also receive numerous personal mental health benefits. Help out a local organization, such as a soup-kitchen. Clean out your closet and donate the clothes you’ve grown out of. Put in some extra effort around the house to help out your family. Do something kind for a friend. The possibilities are endless!

Self help/empowerment poster to be yourself and accept yourself.

-Be kind to yourself-

As important as it is to be kind to others, it’s equally important to practice kindness towards yourself. We’ve given you a lot of tips on how to deal with feeling down. But when you’re depressed, it can be really hard to find the motivation to actually do these things. If you skip a workout or stay in all day, don’t get mad at yourself. Instead, think about what you’d say to a good friend going through something similar.

-Most importantly: don’t hesitate to see your healthcare professional

Vector drawing of health care professionals.

“Blues can be part of some other system,” says Jacqueline Gollan, PhD, associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Chronic pain, headaches, sleep disorders, and even heart disease are all linked to depression symptoms, so check in with your healthcare provider to make sure your winter blues aren’t something more serious.

We hope that these small changes can lighten your mood and help you get through the winter blues!


This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

The information (including but not limited to, text, graphics, images, and other material) contained on this blog are for informational purposes only. No material on this blog is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog. *

-Written by Jess The Young Adult Librarian