Mind Mental Health

This Is Why You Have the Seasonal Blues—and What You Can Do About It

October 18, 2017
a small white dog in a raincoat
© Chelsea Victoria/Stocksy United
Quick Read

Are gray days bringing you down?

  • How far you live from the equator and genetics are thought to play a role in seasonal mood issues.
  • Your seasonal blues probably aren’t caused by the rain, but by a lack of daylight in the fall and winter months.
  • Staying active and social and making time for things you enjoy can help you feel better.

Rain is a fact of life in the Pacific Northwest. While pluviophiles can barely contain themselves when the weather shifts from sun to drizzle, others are filled with dread. Is today the last day they’ll see the sun for weeks? Will this fall and winter break another rain record

Some people can feel totally fine from season to season, but others are more likely to feel fatigued and down during the fall and winter months, says Margaret Cashman, M.D., a psychiatrist who practices at University of Washington Medical Center and Harborview Medical Center. It’s not quite clear why, but how far you live from the equator and genetics are thought to play a role, she says.

"People who are sensitive to that are going to really notice it. "
—Margaret Cashman, M.D.

A lack of light—not so much the weather—is also to blame, she says. When you consider that we’ll only have 8 hours and 25 minutes of daylight on the winter solstice, it makes sense that seasonal blues are a common complaint in Seattle.

“We’re at a Northern enough latitude that there is a huge difference in the length of day between summer and winter,” says Cashman. “People who are sensitive to that are going to really notice it.”

Is It Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is such a common phrase that anyone living in the Northwest who gets a little down in the dumps swears they have it. But SAD isn’t recognized in the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—the handbook used by mental health providers to make diagnoses.

Instead, someone who displays symptoms of depression with a seasonal pattern would be diagnosed with depressive disorder with a seasonal specifier, says Daniel Evans, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who practices at the UW Neighborhood Northgate Clinic. Unless your symptoms are causing significant levels of distress or impairing your personal or work life, you probably don’t have SAD, he says.

“Most people who do experience those kinds of things—feeling more sluggish, more fatigued or less energetic—probably wouldn’t meet the criteria for a mental disorder,” he says. “They probably would be what we call ‘subclinical’ or ‘subthreshold.’ I think a lot of people probably fall into that subclinical sort of range.”

How to Keep the Rainy Day Blues at Bay

If you find that your work is suffering, you’re not engaging with your friends or family, or you’re always exhausted no matter what you do, talk with your doctor, says Cashman. These are symptoms of depression that should be addressed.

No matter your diagnosis, a little self-care can go a long way in the darker fall and winter months. Here are five things you can do to make it to spring with your mood and energy levels intact.

1. Stick to a Regular Sleep Schedule

One possible reason for the fatigue some people feel at this time of year is because of the effect that changes in daylight hours have to your biological clock. This internal clock responds to light and dark to tell you when you should be awake, and when you should be asleep.

"Mood problems tend to be both causing and caused by sleep disturbances."
—Daniel Evans, Ph.D.

People who are more sensitive to the light will be more naturally inclined to sleep longer in the winter, but it’s not a good idea to give in to this. That’s because people who are prone to mood disorders are also more likely to develop sleep disorders, says Evans.

“One of the symptoms of depression is sleep disturbance or dysregulation. Mood problems tend to be both causing and caused by sleep disturbances,” he says. “It’s just a generally good idea for people who are potentially prone to mood issues to keep a regular sleep schedule.”

2. Stay Active

Research has found that exercise improves both quality of life and health. And when it comes to your mood, being sedentary is worse than living in a dark, northern city, says Cashman. 

“For people who do get bummed out by the winter and the weather, being more physically active is really a great antidote,” she says. “Exercise is an antidepressant.”

You can exercise outdoors or indoors, at a high intensity or low intensity, says Cashman. What’s important is that you keep moving, period.

3. Socialize

When you’re feeling “meh,” ordering takeout and bingeing on the new Twin Peaks with your cat can feel a whole lot more enticing than putting on your rain boots and meeting friends for dinner. But research shows that social isolation is associated with a higher risk of mental health issues—so it’s important to make time for social contact, says Cashman.

"If you’re feeling like hibernating—don’t."
—Margaret Cashman, M.D.

“When you have a choice of staying in and vegging out versus saying ‘hey, let’s go do something,’ try to push yourself into doing what’s called opposite action,” she says. “If you’re feeling like hibernating—don’t.”

At the end of the day, when you think back over what gave you some enjoyment, it’s usually the time you spent with others, says Cashman. Remember that the next time you find yourself falling into fall or winter hermit mode. 

4. Invest in a Lightbox

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a device that helps your mood. Research has found light therapy to be beneficial for people with seasonal depression, says Evans. In fact, it’s often part of the first line of treatment. 

While there isn’t yet enough research in people who would be considered subclinical, anecdotally, he’s seen it help. He recommends using a 10,000-lux lamp for about 20 to 30 minutes within the first hour of waking up in the morning. Check with your healthcare provider first to make sure that light therapy will not negatively affect any medical conditions you have or medications you are on, Evans suggests.

5. Pencil in Some Time for Pleasure

Sure, you know that cozying up with some tea while you read or taking a nice hot bath usually makes you feel a lot better. But when people are feeling down, the little things that bring joy and comfort can get swept under the rug, says Evans. That’s why “pleasant event scheduling”—which is exactly what it sounds like—can be useful, he says. 
 

"That’s one of the best ways to boost your mood and it pays off in the long run."
—Daniel Evans, Ph.D.

In his practice, Evans suggests patients make enjoyable activities as much a priority as the morning meeting at work by scheduling them into their planner or adding it to their calendar app and setting notifications.

“It doesn’t have to be big things, just a few little things each day that you know will give you some pleasure,” he says, like calling a friend, meditating, or whatever interests you. “We know that’s one of the best ways to boost your mood and it pays off in the long run.”