Is It the Winter Blues or Major Depression?

Rear view of person in black standing at railing looking over lake with snowy hills on one sideAll people, at some point, experience one or more of the symptoms of depression. It is normal for our moods to cycle moderately while we balance demands at work and at home, while coping with short- or long-term illness, or when dealing with a loss such as a death or breakup. Mental health professionals also expect to see fluctuations a little more pronounced during the winter season.

It is encouraging to know that the experience of depression-like symptoms has become normalized. People can more readily acknowledge to their friends and loved ones they are having a hard time and can ask for support without fear of being stigmatized as “weak.” But that happy (pun intended) societal adjustment has also resulted in a frequently casual reference to what may be a more serious condition.

Many people toss around the words “depression” or “depressed” to describe their moods in the moment. You may have heard yourself or someone you know say, “I’m feeling a little depressed today,” and go on to talk about a situation they are working through. So how do you know if you are experiencing a normal mood fluctuation that is typical for the winter months or a major depressive episode?

Typically in the warmer months, we spend more time outside breathing in fresh air and get more sunshine and physical activity. We often socialize more as we get outdoors, rather than hunkering in until the colder weather passes. We also may be more likely to eat healthier as we crave fewer “comfort” foods and spend less time around sugary holiday fare. As a result, we may sleep better. All of these factors may be protective, to some extent, from depression and even the so-called blues.

Enter winter.

Even if you suspect your depressive symptoms are the result of SAD, it is important to consider seeking help during the colder months. This can be in the form of psychotherapy, lifestyle changes, complementary and alternative treatments, medication, or any combination of those interventions.

If you were feeling good during the summer but notice you are feeling down during the colder months, take a look at your daily routines and see if you can make some adjustments. Can you make an effort to spend more time with friends? Or even bundle up and get outside for a walk? In the winter, many people want to eat warmer, heartier foods and skip things like fresh fruit and salads, which is natural. So how about making stew stocked with veggies and whatever else you like in it instead of mac and cheese? These are just a few ideas to help you pull yourself out of the winter blues.

But what happens when your blues have taken a turn for the worse? When is it time to get professional help? If you experience several of the following symptoms most of the time over about a two-week period, it might be helpful for you to consult with a mental health professional to determine if what you are experiencing is the blues or possible major depression:

  • You feel sad, teary, or irritable most of the time or have frequent unexplainable crying jags.
  • You notice a significant increase or decrease in appetite, weight gain, or weight loss.
  • You have unusual trouble falling asleep or staying asleep (waking up in the middle of the night), or you want/need to sleep all the time.
  • You feel excessive guilt, like you could or should be doing more or that you are not enough at home, with friends, or on the job.
  • You feel tired most of the time, constantly fatigued.
  • You have trouble concentrating, continuously lose your train of thought, or feel uncharacteristically indecisive.
  • You feel an absence of emotion, like a numbness, and your body feels heavy and slow-moving.
  • You don’t want to do things you generally enjoy; you’ve lost interest.
  • You have thoughts of suicide or wonder if your family and loved ones would be better off without you.

It is worth noting that winter blues can also gradually become a cyclical major depressive episode referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a subcategory of depression. Symptoms of SAD reflect those of major depression, yet they are a recurring pattern. Most people who have SAD notice their mood takes a downturn in the fall, with the worst of the symptoms occurring during the winter months, and then their mood improves as the days become longer and the weather warmer. (However, there are some who experience SAD during the spring/summer.)

Even if you suspect your depressive symptoms are the result of SAD, it is important to consider seeking help during the colder months. This can be in the form of psychotherapy, lifestyle changes, complementary and alternative treatments, medication, or any combination of those interventions.

Whether you are experiencing the winter blues or suspect you may be struggling with major depression, help is available. Seeking it does not mean you are weak or fragile. These conditions are common, and although it can be hard to recognize while you’re in the throes of them, they are highly treatable. You can and will feel better.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Alena Gerst, LCSW, RYT, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Junior

    December 20th, 2016 at 8:28 AM

    Isn’t there something like light therapy that could help? I have also been hearing people talk about the benefits of salt lamps or something like that?

  • Alena

    December 20th, 2016 at 10:38 AM

    I am not so sure about salt lamps, although they are lovely. But definitely light boxes with full spectrum bulbs can be beneficial for seasonal mood changes. I highly recommend them. -Alena

  • mitchell

    December 21st, 2016 at 10:06 AM

    In some ways I don’t guess that It really matters if whatever it is is making you feel terrible about life in general. And let’s say that it is SAD… who wants to wait until the time or the weather changes to get back to feeling like your old self? If it is depression or if it is effected by the seasons, you deserve more than simply feeling low all the time. You need to seek out help from someone who can help you understand what it is that you are feeling and who will probably have some suggestions and techniques for healing what is hurting you.

  • Alena

    December 21st, 2016 at 11:18 AM

    That is true, Mitchell. Even though it may not make someone feel better emotionally, it could help to intellectually understand that it is SAD. But that doesn’t mean that some kind of intervention isn’t warranted. -Alena

  • Beverly

    December 23rd, 2016 at 8:33 AM

    I have gone through depression and at first you just start to think oh I feel a little sad today but then that extends over the next few days and then you start thinking about how there is logically nothing for you to be feeling sad about.
    That was when I came to understand that I needed some help and that I was not going to be able to go through this on my own.
    So I started talking to a counselor in an online site and this has helped me immensely. I have not had to take any medication yet but I am not against that if things do not improve to the level where I wish to be.
    But I think that for me having someone to talk to even online has made a big difference for me.

  • Alena

    December 23rd, 2016 at 11:44 AM

    Thank you for sharing, Beverly. I am glad to see that you are seeking support and have an open mind about treatment. You are not alone. -Alena

  • Suzie

    December 24th, 2016 at 6:23 AM

    My mother lived with depression her whole life and in the end I think that it really did cause her untimely death. She was not old enough to die, but I think that her being depressed alot kept her from physically taking care of herself like she should. I don’t think that if she had ever received the care the she needed then she would have left us as soon as she did.

    I think that witnessing what she went through herself makes me pretty hyper aware of when this is happening to others, and I want to do what I can to help them avoid that same fate.

  • Alena

    December 25th, 2016 at 5:53 AM

    That is a valuable insight, Suzie, that depression also can take a physical toll on the body. Thank you. -Alena

  • reese

    December 26th, 2016 at 10:52 AM

    At this point in the season all I can do now is hope that spring is not too far away.

  • Alena

    December 26th, 2016 at 6:14 PM

    Good luck Reese! Hopefully you can do some things to keep yourself comfortable while we wait. -Alena

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