Mental Health: Depression or Winter Blues?

Posted on Feb 12, 2024

´╗┐Physicians agree that mental health is just as important as physical health. The holidays and the general gloominess of the winter season can contribute to depression and anxiety for many people.


What are the winter blues?

brian wright md in hallwayAccording to Brian Wright, MD, Mercer University School of Medicine graduate and psychiatrist with Mercer Medicine in Macon, said, “Winter blues is a slang term for an actual medical condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder.” According to Dr. Wright, up to 20% of people say their mood is worse in winter, and 85% of people who suffer from depression say their symptoms worsen during this time.

“What most people call the winter blues are just ‘I feel a little bit blah.’ Most people feel like they have a little less energy, they feel some extra fatigue,” he said. People may not want to go outside as much, crave carbohydrate-rich foods, and do not sleep well. For most, symptoms are mild and can resolve within a couple of months.

While these symptoms are most associated with wintertime, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can occur during any season. “There are people who in the spring and summer have the opposite reaction. For people who have bipolar disorder, the spring and summer can elicit manic episodes,” said Dr. Wright. “People who live in areas that have 24 hours of daylight or long periods of daylight in the summer are especially prone to triggering mood symptoms or even psychosis, occasionally.”

The “blues” may make people think symptoms are only mild, when in actuality, symptoms can be severe. “Suicide rates go up in the winter. And especially at the end of winter when the first sign of spring comes back, suicide rates go up,” said Dr. Wright.

Dr. Wright recommends people seek medical attention when symptoms interfere with the things they need to do in their daily life. “If you can’t get up and go to work, you stop taking care of yourself, you are not cleaning your house and doing laundry, it’s a trigger that it’s gone beyond the general 'blah.'” He explained that those with serious depression stay in bed for long periods of time and socially isolate themselves. “Anytime it gets to the point where people are thinking about hurting themselves, they don’t feel safe, or they start having intrusive thoughts, not wanting to be here anymore, it’s time to get some help.”

Beating Winter Blues

For general blues, Dr. Wright said exercising more, getting outside when sunlight is available, making a special effort to socialize, and planning things throughout the day can help relieve symptoms. If symptoms cannot be managed, the first stop should be a primary care physician for evaluation. For more serious cases of SAD, people should seek a mental health professional.

“We have a lot less light during the winter. One of the treatments for people who have mild Seasonal Affective Disorder is light therapy,” said Dr. Wright. Special lights are used to help shut off melatonin and increase serotonin, which is the main medication that is used in anti-depressants.

Seeing a therapist more often or a physician adjusting medications during winter can be beneficial.

“Your mental health is the same as your physical health. Doing the things that keep your body healthy also keep your mind healthy,” he said. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and socializing with others in positive ways are things to help get through the cold months.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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