Signs of Seasonal Depression & How to Cope in the Cold Winter Months

Signs of Seasonal Depression & How to Cope in the Cold Winter Months

"Researchers have noted that SAD is associated with a biochemical imbalance in the brain in relation to neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation."

Signs of Seasonal Depression & How to Cope


If you’re one of the estimated 10 million Americans who suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, you may find yourself dreading the cold winter months when symptoms are most common.1 Triggered by the change of seasons, SAD may impact everything from your mood and personal life to your work and relationships.

But there are ways to reduce symptoms associated with seasonal depression and feel more like yourself again no matter what the weather looks like outside. Find out what researchers say about the most common seasonal depression  signs, why SAD occurs, and preventative strategies that may help.

Is Seasonal Depression Legitimate?

SAD is a form of depression listed in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a type of depression with a seasonal pattern. It should not be confused with the milder “winter blues,” which may affect most people from time to time due to shorter days, less sunlight, and more time indoors than usual.2 SAD is a legitimate mental condition, which can be debilitating and interfere with daily functioning.

To be formally diagnosed with SAD, you must experience depressive symptoms beginning and ending during a specific season every year, with full remittance during other seasons, for at least two years.3 People with SAD must have more seasons of depression than seasons without depression over their lifetime.

Researchers have noted that SAD is associated with a biochemical imbalance in the brain in relation to neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation, like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. This imbalance is prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. As seasons change, those who suffer from this condition experience a shift in their biological internal clock, which in turn causes a shift in brain chemicals.4 SAD tends to be more common in people living far from the equator where there are fewer daylight hours in the winter. 

Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Though SAD can affect anyone, it occurs more frequently in women than men. Onset of symptoms is usually between ages 18 and 30. People with SAD experience the following types of symptoms in a seasonal pattern, beginning and ending around the same time each year: 

Persistent Low Mood & Fatigue

People with seasonal depression typically feel constantly sad or anxious most of the day, every day, for at least two weeks. They may also have low motivation and feel tired, leading to oversleeping. Some research shows that people with seasonal affective disorder also produce more melatonin, which can lead to sluggishness and low mood.5 

Loss of Interest & Difficulty Concentrating

A person dealing with seasonal depression may also lose interest in pleasurable activities like hobbies and socializing with family and friends. They may also find that it’s harder to concentrate. In one study, researchers found a correlation between seasonal affective disorder and impaired cognitive function, especially when it came to memory and attention.6

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Changes in Sleep Patterns, Appetite, or Weight

Seasonal affective disorder can cause changes to the way your body normally functions, causing you to oversleep or have trouble sleeping, or causing you to overeat or eat too little. Symptoms vary for each person, but it’s clear the mental condition has a significant impact on one’s hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates sleep, mood, and appetite.7

Feelings of Hopelessness

Despite its predictable pattern of disappearing when the season changes, seasonal depression can make a person feel hopeless while it lasts. They may feel like their symptoms will never go away and feel guilty for not being able to just “snap out of it.” It’s important to reach out for help if you’re ever feeling hopeless and alone, especially if thoughts of self harm arise. 

How to Cope with Seasonal Depression

Use a Light Therapy Lamp (Phototherapy)

A light therapy box emits a very bright light (and filters out harmful ultraviolet rays) for about 20 minutes each day. Mimicking outdoor light, researchers think light therapy may help to balance brain chemicals that impact mood.8 It usually starts to work within a few days to a few weeks.

Regular Exercise

You may feel tired and unmotivated, but exercising is another way to help reduce symptoms related to SAD. Studies show physical exercise can cause a 50% decrease in depressive symptoms, even if done moderately.9 And exercising outdoors is even better, as it increases your exposure to sunlight. Exercise helps to promote cognitive function and balance brain chemicals like serotonin and feel-good endorphins.  

Maintain a Healthy Diet 

Did you know most of your serotonin (your happy hormone) is synthesized in your gut? Following a healthy diet is a crucial component to physical and mental health and optimal brain function. Aim for plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats to ensure you’re getting a wide array of macro and micronutrients. And try to steer clear of foods that can exacerbate symptoms like sugar and excess caffeine.  

Consider Supplements or OTC Medication

Our main source of vitamin D comes from the sun, so it makes sense to take vitamin D supplements during the winter months if you have a deficiency. Studies do show a relationship between seasonal depression and vitamin D deficiency, though more studies are needed to determine whether supplementation may help.10 

Another option to help reduce symptoms caused or exacerbated by seasonal depression like anxiety, stress, irritability, and lack of focus is to take a non-prescription, homeopathic medication like Brillia. Free from harsh, synthetic chemicals and harmful side effects, Brillia promotes a balanced mood and improves clarity and focus by targeting the brain-specific S100B protein. A key regulator of many different intracellular and extracellular brain processes, elevated levels of this protein are associated with mood disorders like anxiety and depression and cognitive impairment.11, 12 By regulating this protein’s activity, Brillia stops symptoms of anxiety and stress at the source of symptoms without affecting any other systems in the body or masking your personality. As a result of this regulating effect, Brillia also helps to normalize other neurotransmitters associated with depression, such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. 

As a gentle and cumulative medication, Brillia should be taken in advance of symptoms so it can build up in the system (around 2-3 weeks), so you're prepared by the time your symptoms do arrive. And if you choose to stop taking it when spring arrives, you won't experience any “coming off” effects, so you can use it seasonally if that is what works best for you. Learn more about how Brillia works.

Mindfulness & Relaxation Techniques

Practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help reduce symptoms related to depression and anxiety, whether they only occur during the winter months or throughout the year. From meditation to simple breathing exercises, mindfulness helps you become more aware of the  present moment and accept your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Over time and with consistent use, you learn to create space between you and your symptoms, realizing they have less and less power over you.

What Causes Seasonal Depression?

Researchers are not entirely sure what causes SAD, though lack of sunlight is a major factor. Not only does the change of seasons trigger a disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm and brain chemicals, but it may also lead to a vitamin D deficiency due to more time spent indoors.

People at risk for developing seasonal depression typically have another mood disorder like bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder. If you have relatives with SAD or other forms of depression or mental health conditions, you are also more vulnerable to developing SAD. Living in a cloudy region or farther from the equator also puts you more at risk.

Is “SAD” Still Possible in the Summertime?

Most people experience SAD when fall starts and the days become shorter. The depression tends to worsen in the late fall and early winter until spring arrives with its sunshine and warmer weather. In the U.S., January and February tend to be the worst months for people with SAD.

Though SAD is more common in fall and winter months, some people experience seasonal depression in the spring and summer. This is referred to as a “summer depression.” It starts in the late spring, early summer, and ends around fall. According to  Samar McCutcheon, MD, a psychiatrist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, up to 30 percent of people with SAD experience summer depression.13

Preventative Methods & When to See a Doctor

One benefit of having SAD is that because your symptoms follow a pattern, you can prepare for their onslaught. While you cannot prevent SAD completely, people with seasonal depression who take early action to manage their symptoms can prevent them from worsening over time. We recommend doing the following:

  • Keeping your circadian rhythm in check by getting adequate sleep and following a predictable sleep routine
  • Following a nutritious diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Seeing a therapist before symptoms arise as they can offer more preventative strategies you can use when you start to feel low,  especially if you tend to have dark thoughts
  • Developing a regular mindfulness routine 

As we mentioned above, taking a non-prescription medication like Brillia before symptoms show up allows the ingredient to build up in the body so you’re prepared when the colder months do arrive. Brillia doesn’t mask symptoms; when used correctly and consistently, it actually helps to reduce symptoms at their source. And if you’re already taking a medication or supplement for seasonal depression, Brillia can be added to your regimen without worry to resolve any secondary symptoms or reduce the need to increase your dosage as there are no contraindications associated with the medication. When combined with the healthy lifestyle habits outlined in our 5-Pillar methodology, which include proper nutrition, adequate sleep, controlled screen time, and mindfulness, you’ve got a master plan to support you throughout winter as well as the rest of the year. 

Find out more about how Brillia works and find more resources on supporting your mental health at the Brillia(nce) Resource Center.

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References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13
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