Winter can get pretty tough. The days get shorter and darker, the air gets colder, and we spend more time inside. If you find yourself feeling a bit down during this time of year, you’re not alone. There’s a reason why so many people call them the “winter blues.”

But for some, it’s a little more than that. This feeling goes beyond mild melancholy and crosses into a more serious form of seasonal depression. Each year, around 10 million Americans are estimated to experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – and many don’t even realize they have it.

But what exactly is seasonal affective disorder? And more importantly, can you treat it? Here’s what you need to know.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a specific type of depression connected to seasonal changes. Typically, someone with SAD experiences symptoms at the same time each year. For most, this occurs during the fall and winter. However, SAD can also cause depression in the spring and summer – this is known as summer SAD.

Seasonal affective disorder usually affects adults who live in cold, cloudy climates that are farther away from the equator. It’s also more likely to affect those with a family history of depression, as well as women more than men. However, these factors don’t rule out other groups of people – SAD can affect anyone.

Seasonal affective disorder symptoms

It might be hard to know if what you’re experiencing is seasonal affective disorder. SAD can sometimes look like other mental health conditions – and vice versa. But there’s a big difference between SAD and “the winter blues.”

Doctors may diagnose someone with seasonal affective disorder when they’ve experienced symptoms over the course of at least two years, and those symptoms have noticeably impaired their ability to function. For this reason, SAD is not something that should be self-diagnosed. Your primary care doctor or mental health provider can help you figure out if what you’re experiencing is SAD.

However, there are common symptoms you can look for and track, including:

  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Lost interest in things you once enjoyed
  • Sleeping too much
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling worthless
  • Suicidal ideations or intrusive thoughts – if you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for confidential support 24/7.

It’s also important to note that SAD symptoms can be specific to what kind of seasonal affective disorder you have. For instance, those with winter/fall SAD are more likely to oversleep, overeat and feel sluggish, while those with summer SAD are more likely to experience insomnia, appetite loss, anxiety and irritability.

So, what exactly causes seasonal affective disorder? Research suggests that SAD can’t be connected to a single root cause. Many things can contribute, and it’s often a combination of factors.

Causes of winter seasonal affective disorder

With winter seasonal affective disorder, shorter days and less light can trigger a chemical reaction in the brain. Sun helps regulate serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood. When your body isn’t getting as much light, production of serotonin decreases.

People with winter SAD may also experience an overproduction of melatonin, a sleep hormone produced by the pineal gland. Prolonged darkness can cause production to increase, causing exhaustion and lethargy. In addition, with less light, the body produces less vitamin D, which can also decrease serotonin levels.

SAD during Minnesota and Wisconsin winters

Both Minnesota and Wisconsin are among the states most vulnerable to seasonal affective disorder – a list led by Alaska and other northern states. Research shows that countries with more extreme weather (both hot and cold) have higher rates of suicide and depression. This also correlates with states in the U.S.

Because of increased cold and decreased daylight during the winter, residents of Minnesota and Wisconsin are more likely to experience depression, low energy, trouble concentrating and more. In fact, Dr. Michael Howell, a neurology professor at the University of Minnesota, says that 5-10% of people in Minnesota experience SAD symptoms.

Causes of summer seasonal affective disorder

For summer SAD, it’s often the opposite. Longer days with less darkness can decrease melatonin production, instead making someone more likely to suffer from insomnia and sleep disturbances. This can greatly impact mental health. It’s also believed that elevated temperatures and increased levels of allergens may disrupt sleep, causing a flux in serotonin levels.

Seasonal affective disorder treatment options

Depending on a person’s care needs, a doctor or mental health specialist may recommend a combination of treatments to manage seasonal affective disorder.

Some of the most common seasonal affective disorder treatments that have helped people find relief include:

Light therapy for depression

Many people with winter SAD have found that light therapy is a great way to help boost their mood. Sitting within arm’s length of a full-spectrum fluorescent lamp for about 30-60 minutes each day can help produce a chemical change in the brain – the type you’d normally get from the sun. This can help kick up serotonin production and regulate melatonin levels.

It’s important to note that while you may be able to purchase this type of light by yourself, you should use it under the direction of a medical professional. This way you can monitor and adjust exposure based on your needs. Also, this type of therapy isn’t for everyone. It can cause complications for people with specific eye conditions, like glaucoma, cataracts, or eye damage and sensitivities.

Cognitive behavioral therapy for seasonal affective disorder

Therapy can be a valuable mental health tool for those suffering from seasonal depression. Studies suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy, a specific type of talk therapy, has been shown to positively affect those with both winter or summer SAD – especially long term.

CBT helps you identify negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones, so you can better cope with challenges and anxieties. Over several sessions, a therapist will help you learn and practice relaxation, resilience, stress management and coping techniques.

Medicines and antidepressants

In some cases, a doctor might prescribe medicine to help a patient experiencing symptoms of SAD. Most medical professionals will first prescribe a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) like citalopram, fluoxetine or sertraline. But in some cases, they may also prescribe bupropion, which is specific to seasonal depression.

These medicines increase levels of serotonin in the brain by blocking certain nerve cells from absorbing it. They encourage calm and happiness while decreasing anxiety. Your doctor can prescribe this treatment before your symptoms tend to start. Medicines can take a little while to work and finding the one that works best for you may involve a few tries.

Touching base with your doctor

If you think you might be struggling with seasonal affective disorder, don’t ignore your symptoms.

Make an appointment with a primary care doctor or clinician. Primary care doctors can diagnose and treat hundreds of conditions. And they can also refer you to a mental health expert if you need more specialized care.

If you’re already working with a mental health specialist, get your next mental health visit scheduled if you haven’t already. As always, they’ll work with you to understand the symptoms and feelings you’re experiencing and create a personalized care plan.