How To Tell If It's Seasonal Depression Or Just A Bad Mood

Breaking down the key differences between winter blues and seasonal affective disorder.
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Winter certainly has its perks (ice skating, hot chocolate, idyllic snowfalls, just to name a few). It also has a major downside. The frozen season often comes with a series of mood changes. But how do we know if what we’re feeling is just the winter blues or something more serious like seasonal affective disorder?

Approximately half a million American adults are affected by SAD, a depression-related condition that generally occurs in the winter months (though, not always). In most cases, symptoms usually appear in the late fall and last until around the first week of April. SAD is prevalent among individuals who live in the northern states where it gets cloudier and colder. Women are also more susceptible to SAD than men.

Everyone has bouts of the winter blahs ― who wouldn’t after being confined to the indoors for most of the week? But the key is the frequency of your mood swings. If your sour disposition is persistent, it might be time to check in with a physician. Here are a few other signs you might actually be dealing with seasonal depression instead of just the winter blues:

You’ve already been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

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According to Michelle Riba, a professor of psychiatry and the associate director of the University of Michigan Depression Center, SAD can essentially be a seasonal component of an already-existing mental health issue, like depression or bipolar disorder.

You’re sleeping a lot more than usual.

Sure, snoozing away dreary days feels good ― but it shouldn’t be a regular habit. If it becomes one, you might need to consider how your mental health might be a factor. SAD affects your melatonin levels (a sleep-inducing hormone naturally produced in the body), which could lead to changes in sleep patterns. If you find yourself oversleeping two or more hours each day compared to your normal sleep schedule, you may want to be monitored for the condition.

You’ve lost interest in fun activities.

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SAD has a nasty way of taking what was once enjoyable and snowing all over it. The condition can decrease your sex drive, and you may feel yourself wanting to withdraw from social situations, both of which are also hallmark symptoms of depression. Even your interest in work can begin to wane. In other words, your daily life is affected.

You’re craving carbs.

French fries are generally pretty irresistible no matter what time of year it is, but with seasonal depression those carbohydrate cravings may increase tenfold, according to the Mayo Clinic. SAD can lead to changes in your eating habits: In the winter you may consume more, whereas with summertime SAD you may experience poor appetite and unhealthy weight loss.

You’re constantly arguing with your loved ones.

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The condition has a way of increasing your unhappiness and irritability, making that slow driver in front of you or your partner’s annoying habits more annoying than normal. Because of this, you may find yourself bickering more with your friends and family in a way that is seemingly unusual. This may occur especially if you have summertime SAD, as feelings of anxiety and edginess tend to be higher.

Your energy is low.

We’re not talking your run-of-the-mill caffeine withdrawal, but the kind where you just can’t shake your exhaustion. One of the key signs you might be experiencing seasonal depression is feeling increasingly lethargic; your limbs may even feel physically heavy. SAD can also mess with your natural circadian rhythm, or your body’s biological clock, causing changes in energy and mood.

Your symptoms are different during other seasons.

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The key distinction between SAD and other forms of depression lies in the date on the calendar. If you’re experiencing an increased intensity in mental health symptoms just during certain times of the year, discuss coping options with your doctor or therapist. Some physicians may recommend light therapy, due to your body’s lack of serotonin (a mood-boosting chemical in the brain) and vitamin D from the reduction in natural sunlight.

Other forms of treatment could include talk therapy or medication. It’s important to talk to a doctor to figure out the best treatment method because, like mentioned above, SAD can be a sign of long-term depression.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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