Change in Seasons, Change in Moods

By UB Staff Therapist Andrea Watkins, LCSW

I absolutely love the fall and most everything associated with it- the color of the leaves, crispness of the air, anything pumpkin-flavored, the return of scarf and boot weather… However, I am not a fan of losing more daylight hours and the cloudy/dreary weather associated with the change of seasons. Once November comes along, I see a shift in a lot of my clients moods, where depression becomes worse, isolative behavior starts increasing, and feelings of hopelessness starts up again. While for some clients it is just the natural response to being more home bound or their own cycles, some may actually be affected because of the shift in seasons.

Most people have heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder and I feel my clients often throw that term around… So I thought I would delve into a little more research to clear up the difference between SAD and the “winter blues.”

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is defined as a mood disorder associated with symptoms of depression, identified by the main trigger of decreasing daytime hours. Features include sadness, anxiety, mood swings, lethargy, sexual dysfunctions, oversleeping, overheating and feelings of hopelessness. It has been determined that the shortening of the days can interfere with our circadian rhythm and melatonin levels, similar to what happens with animals who hibernate (increased sleep, ceasing of mating behaviors, decreased digestive functioning- which in turn gains weight in humans… Get the link?) But the defining feature of SAD is the timing- where it usually lasts from fall to spring, and needs to be a consistent pattern for at least three years to be clinically diagnosed.

As for “winter blues,” this is not a clinical diagnosis, but more a term for mild situational depression that may be caused by holiday stress (or even the come-down from fun holiday festivities), shifting of seasons and daylight hours. It is usually short-term (a few weeks) and can be improved through exercise, more social contact and light exposure.

So how do you know the difference? Only a skilled clinician will be able to help decipher your symptoms. Here’s a list of questions that may help guide you and your clinician to see if there’s a pattern:

  1. Patterns. Depression only in the fall/winter months? Sometimes an increase in depression in April but relieving in May? Immediately felt better with several days of outdoor sunlight?
  1. Length of time. Symptoms generally taper off in a few weeks, or lasting months?
  1. Severity. Sadness is present, but able to go about daily functions, or beginning to interfere with daily functioning (work, school, social interaction, keeping up with hygiene)?
  1. Types of interventions. Attempted to use coping skills to decrease symptoms? Or Increased difficulties using coping skills, or finding energy/motivation to use them?

Treatment for SAD is fairly simple, involving light therapy, CBT (a type of talk-therapy) and behavioral changes (such as seeing friends more.) In some extreme cases psychotropic medication may be needed, like an anti-depressant. Whether you have SAD, “winter blues” or just feeling down and out for not the most apparent reason, talking to a professional is the most important first step to feeling better.


Wein, Harrison & Contie, Vicki. “Beating the Winter Blues: Shedding Light on Seasonal Sadness.” Jan 2013. Retrieved from

“Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).” Mental Health America Online. Retrieved from

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