The dark and cold winter months often bring more than just frosty weather. For many, the changing seasons also usher in feelings of sadness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and a loss of interest in normal activities. This condition, known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD, impacts millions each year. As we settle into January, SAD diagnoses are spiking across the country. However, increased awareness and improved treatment options provide hope.
Understanding the winter blues
Seasonal affective disorder is considered a subtype of depression triggered by the changing seasons. The main cause appears to be the lack of sufficient sunlight in winter months. Shorter days and limited sunlight disrupt the body’s internal clock and lead to chemical changes, including a drop in serotonin levels. This neurotransmitter regulates mood, sleep, appetite, and more.
The resulting symptoms of SAD often resemble depression symptoms:
- Loss of energy and fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased appetite and weight gain
- Increased sleep and daytime drowsiness
- Lack of interest in normal activities
- Feeling down or moody
For many with SAD, these symptoms start in fall as daylight hours decrease and worsen through winter, impacting work, relationships and overall wellbeing.
SAD diagnoses expected to rise
Mental health experts anticipate a significant uptick in SAD cases this January and February based on seasonal trends. Current estimates indicate about 5% of U.S. adults suffer from winter-onset SAD, while a larger portion experience less severe “winter blues.”
Table 1 shows the projected number of SAD cases in January 2024 compared to previous years:
|Estimated SAD cases
|Increase vs. prior year
Rising rates of seasonal depression align with general mental health declines seen over the pandemic. Isolation, anxiety, grief and other factors leave many more vulnerable to seasonal shifts. University counselling centers in cold-weather college towns expect particularly high demand this winter.
Light therapy adoption increases
With SAD on the rise, interest in light therapy as a treatment option has also grown substantially. Searches for SAD lamps increased 150% from 2021 to 2022, and retailers project record sales this winter.
These therapeutic lights simulate sunshine indoors to help regulate the body’s internal clock. Daily use, especially early in the morning, can improve energy, mood, focus and sleep quality. Most patients see at least some benefits within 1-2 weeks.
While more costly than other SAD treatments like medication or talk therapy, consumer light boxes now start around $30. Experts consider light therapy one of the most effective options with minimal side effects.
Long term impacts
Untreated seasonal affective disorder can significantly disrupt work, education, relationships and overall quality of life. Over time, chronic winter depression also increases risks for:
- Clinical depression
- Substance abuse
- Weight gain and obesity
- Diabetes and heart disease
- Suicidal thoughts
Seeking treatment early leads to better outcomes long-term. Light therapy provides a drug-free option for those concerned about medication side effects or interactions.
Outlook improves with awareness and options
While seasonal depression will likely continue to increase in the coming years, the stigma around mental health declines as awareness grows. The wide variety of SAD therapy lamps, goggles, visors and software available empowers those affected to find an effective solution. Resources like online support groups also help people understand they aren’t alone in the winter blues.
Mental health experts advise using the increased momentum and interest in SAD to have open conversations about seasonal depression and general mental health. Getting informed, checking in on loved ones showing symptoms, and sharing treatment experiences all play a role in supporting those with seasonal affective disorder.
While the dark winter months may still loom ahead, the future looks brighter for those suffering from seasonal blues.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.