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woman with Seasonal Affective Disorder

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

16 May 2023 • 11 min read

Winter can feel like a bit of a slog. But, sometimes, there’s more to it than a case of the blues.

Could it be Seasonal Affective Disorder? Or are the dark evenings just making you feel a little low? 

Whatever the cause, we’ll find out more and help you learn ways to feel more like yourself again. 

What are the winter blues? 

Winter blues can happen as the cold season sets in, bringing lower temperatures, shorter days, and a disruption to normal routine with it. 

You may find yourself feeling more down than usual, have some difficulty concentrating and sleeping, and even lose motivation to perform basic tasks.

Is it SAD? 

Seasonal Affective Disorder – also known as SAD – is another reason you might struggle at this time of year.

It’s a type of depression that comes and goes according to the seasons. Most often, it appears in winter, but some people experience SAD in the summer, too.1

Symptoms of SAD can include:1
  • Persistent low mood 
  • Feelings of despair, guilt, and worthlessness 
  • A loss of pleasure in everyday activities 
  • Irritability 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Lack of energy 
  • Sleeping for longer than normal, or finding it difficult to wake up 
  • Changes in appetite

What causes SAD? 

Scientists are yet to understand the true cause of SAD, but theory is that the lack of sunlight affects a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. 

The hypothalamus may affect your levels of:
  • Serotonin: a hormone that affects your mood, appetite, and sleep. Lack of sunlight may cause a drop in your serotonin levels, making you feel depressed.1
  • Melatonin: a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. Those with SAD may produce higher levels of melatonin than usual.1

8 ways to lift your mood in winter

1. Exercise

1. Exercise

Research has shown that exercise works wonders in alleviating symptoms of depression, due to the release of endorphins (“feel-good” chemicals that can boost mood).2 

It also has the potential to improve your sleep, helping you combat those winter blues in more ways than one.3 

Every bit counts, so whether it’s a 15-minute walk outside, an indoor treadmill, or something more demanding, you’re on the way to finding a routine that works!

2. Bring light into your life 

A lack of light can affect our circadian rhythm, the internal clock in our brain that operates in a 24-hour cycle. 

It responds to light and dark, and regulates our sense of alertness and sleepiness.

The changes in night and day during winter can throw this rhythm off balance, resulting in low moods, and in severe cases, depression. 

To help bring your rhythm back to normal, there are a few things to try. Sit by a window for a little while or take a short walk during the day to reconnect with natural light. 

You could even try light therapy – a practice that helps some people with SAD improve their mood – and invest in an artificial daylight lamp, which mimics natural sunshine.5

3. Spend time with friends

It’s important to keep the good times going and live like it’s a different season. Meet friends for a coffee, talk to them on the phone, or do something together online if it’s difficult to get out and about.

4. Talk to someone you trust 

The first step is difficult, even if you have people who you know will listen. But it’s important to tell someone how you’re feeling and get the support you need. 

Technology has made it easier to reach out if finding your voice is difficult, so even a text can help you begin. 

 That doesn’t have to mean speaking to family or friends; a support group could provide a listening ear instead. Or maybe joining a community group or volunteering offers space to escape your usual routine.

5. Plan your next adventure 

Dream of crashing waves and the feeling of sand between your toes – even if it stays a dream. Big, small, or imaginary, it feels good to have something to plan. And even though we can all dream of a holiday, sometimes an adventure can simply be at your doorstep. Whether it’s a solo nature walk, a shopping spree, or something outside of your comfort zone (think pottery, dance, or beginner Muay Thai!), a dream can go as far or wide as you make it as long as you have something to look forward to.

6. Eat good, feel good

A diet rich in nutrients can help boost your mood and energy levels, maintain your weight, and keep you from giving in to cravings.Include plenty of protein, fresh fruit, and vegetables – especially foods rich in vitamin D, like oily fish, egg yolks, and red meat.6

7. Maintain a sleep routine 

Follow a routine that encourages rest at bedtime, such as drinking soothing tea, playing soft music or relaxing sounds, and turning the lights down low. Make sure your room is a comfortable temperature and stay away from anything that may overstimulate your senses, including electronics. Lastly, try to go to sleep and wake up around the same time – and make sure you have some light (natural or artificial) to greet you when you do!

8. Combat your stress

The winter sadness may be fighting, but you can fight back harder! 

Discover ways to overcome the stress nipping at your heels. Make a list of stress sources so you can develop strategies to lessen their impact. 

Find time to do what you enjoy. Write down how you’re feeling and what you’re looking forward to once winter ends, working as an outlet and a guide to future happiness.

Relaxation exercise, like yoga or meditation, may help you clear your mind and keep your body moving. Why not see if it works for you?

When to seek professional help 

If you’re struggling to cope and these strategies alone aren’t enough, speak to your GP for advice. They can help you work out whether it’s SAD and help you explore ways to manage your mental health.

You also asked... 

How long do winter blues last? 

The winter blues are usually mild and short-term, lasting for as a little as a few weeks. If symptoms worsen and disrupt your life, responsibilities, or relationships, there may be a chance it’s developed into SAD.

What’s the difference between winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder? 

The key difference is length, severity, and level of disruption to your life. 

Winter blues are a mild form of seasonal unrest, whereas Seasonal Affective Disorder is an elevated form and a type of depression.

Some people may use the different names interchangeably to describe their low moods, which may make diagnosis trickier.

The final say 

Though both leave you feeling low, there’s a difference between general winter blues and the more serious, long-term SAD. 

We hope we’ve given tips to help limit the occasional low mood, but you should see your GP if you think it could be Seasonal Affective Disorder.


1.       https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/overview/  

2.       https://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/22/2/542

3.       https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4341978/

4.       https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/fact-sheets/Pages/circadian-rhythms.aspx  

5.       https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/treatment/  

6.       https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/  

7.       https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/about-sad/



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