What's the difference between seasonal affective disorder and the winter blues? Here's how to tell

·5-min read

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Silhouette of sad teenage girl looking out the window on a cold autumn day
Seasonal affective disorder is more than just the "winter blues."

his article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Winter is creeping closer, meaning the days are getting shorter and that beloved sun is becoming a rare sight. The recipe of less daylight and cold temperatures isn't one that many enjoy and can leave us feeling a bit down.

According to experts, it’s not unusual for people to fall victim to the “winter blues” and feel sluggish or down during the winter months. However, for some people the changing seasons greatly influence how well they function on a day to day basis and impact their ability to work, be in a relationship or complete day to day activities.

People affected by these extreme changes in mood are likely suffering from seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of clinical depression that occurs during specific times of the year.

Robert Levitan, Cameron Wilson Chair in Depression Research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), says that while a third of Canadians experience the winter blues, only four per cent of Canadians meet the criteria for seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of clinical depression that can have serious impacts on your daily life. (Image via Getty Images)
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of clinical depression that can have serious impacts on your daily life. (Image via Getty Images)

According to Levitan, the key trait for SAD is timing, with most people experiencing the extreme shift in mood during the fall and winter.

“We now know from science that it’s driven by light," Levitan said. "It’s driven by how long the day is and it’s something that starts in steps. It’s not the kind of thing where you suddenly feel depressed one day when the day before you were fine. It usually comes on a little bit at a time and it occurs to different degrees.”

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What are symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Common symptoms of SAD include experiencing low energy, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, feeling agitated, feeling depressed or hopeless and having difficulty concentrating.

With most forms of depression, people tend to lose their appetite and have problems sleeping. However experts say someone who experiences SAD during the winter months will likely experience the opposite.

“People actually eat more, often starchy foods, carbohydrates, comfort foods and they sleep more, not less than usual,” Levitan said. “So they really do look like they’re hibernating."

Experts say people need to experience symptoms of SAD for two years before they can receive an official diagnosis.

Seasonal affective disorder typically occurs during the fall and winter months.  (Image via Getty Images)
Seasonal affective disorder typically occurs during the fall and winter months. (Image via Getty Images)

Two major subgroups of people with seasonal depression

According to Levitan, people who already have pre-existing forms of mental health issues or depression can experience a downward shift in mood during the winter which he calls a “seasonal worsening.”

People with true seasonal affective disorder don’t normally live with psychiatric illnesses and in the spring and summer they may feel like they have more energy than normal.

“It’s really the transition and the difference between the two seasons that really highlights the illness,” Levitan said of the difference between SAD and seasonal worsening. “ There are a lot of people who are seasonal, but it’s just part of their long term course.”

Who is at risk of developing seasonal affective disorder?

With anything, there’s always going to be people who are more sensitive to a given environmental condition and will have a strong negative reaction compared to someone else.

"There's really genetics and a bit of luck involved in terms of who's susceptible,” Levitan explained before adding that young women are more susceptible than men, especially during their reproductive years.

How to treat seasonal affective disorder

For anyone feeling down in the fall and winter months, experts say the best thing you can do is get as much natural light as possible or explore other natural light alternatives.

The National Institute of Mental Health highlights that light therapy has been a mainstay for the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder since the 1980s. Its goal is to expose people with SAD to a bright light everyday to make up for the decline in natural sun they get in the darker months.

A light therapy lamp can help combat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (Image via Getty Images)
A light therapy lamp can help combat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (Image via Getty Images)

“Just make sure that it’s ultraviolet filtered. What we don’t want people to do is to use homemade units that could be dangerous,” Levitan warned. “Ultraviolet light is dangerous to the eye and so it has to be filtered.”

According to Levitan, a light therapy lamp should be between 5,000 to 10,000 lux and be used early in the day.

Aside from light therapy, what you’re eating is important to your mental and overall health. Experts endorse eating small meals regularly throughout the day and including protein.

While a majority of people may lean towards consuming carbohydrates, sugar and other comfort foods, you should keep in mind these types of foods only provide a temporary boost, and will be followed with a big drop in energy.

Exercise can also be a good way to keep your energy and mood up as it provides the same neurochemicals that light will stimulate, explained Levitan. However, he noted that for someone who is depressed, exercise is sometimes the last thing they may want to do.

“For those who can do it, exercise can be helpful,” Levitan said. “For those who find it too difficult to get going, use light as a first step to get your energy level up and then maybe combine it with exercise at that point.”

However, it's important to note there is no one-size-fits all approach to treatment. You should talk to your doctor on a treatment plan that works best for you.

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