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A Change in Seasons Can Bring a Change in Moods

February 26, 2021

by Terri McHugh, LCSW

Changes in seasons can signal changes in our behaviors and moods. People might start to feel “down” during the fall season when the days get shorter and then feel better in the spring when the days get longer. We call this “winter blues.”  In some cases, changes in mood are more serious and tend to get worse as a season progresses.  When seasonal mood changes are so pronounced that they affect thoughts and feelings and cause stress in daily life, this is more than the blues; it may indicate Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression.

Although most people have a type of SAD that occurs during fall and winter months, some may have symptoms that occur during spring and summer months. Although researchers have not identified exactly what causes SAD, most agree that changes in the amount of exposure to sunlight may cause changes in the biological clock (circadian rhythm) and alter chemical levels in our bodies.

Symptoms of SAD and other depressive disorders include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Low energy
  • Sleep problems
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide

People who live far from the equator are more at risk to develop SAD. Additionally, a family history of major depression or bipolar disorder can increase the likelihood of developing SAD, as symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally. SAD is more common in women.

Indications of spring/summer type SAD include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Poor appetite and weight loss
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety

Fall/winter type SAD is associated with:

  • Oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite and weight gain
  • Craving foods high in carbohydrates
  • Low energy and feeling tired

The good news is SAD, along with other depressive disorders, is highly treatable. The first step is to talk with your medical provider. Some medical conditions can cause similar symptoms. Be prepared to discuss concerns, medications and family history. Be honest about symptoms, including aches, pains, headaches, cramps, and digestive problems that do not have a clear physical cause. 

Treatment options for SAD include light therapy, medication and psychotherapy. Your medical provider can help you decide which treatment or combination of treatments is best for you.

Light Therapy

Light therapy replaces natural sunlight on shorter days. Treatment involves sitting near a specially designed light box, which emits intensely bright light while filtering out ultra-violet rays, for 30 to 45 minutes every day. It is thought that light therapy increases levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, and decreases levels of the hormone melatonin, which regulates the sleep/wake cycle and can cause sleepiness when levels are elevated. There are a variety of light boxes available in stores and online that differ in intensity and quality. While light boxes are generally safe, they can cause unwanted side effects in people who have other conditions or are taking certain medications. It is highly recommended that light therapy is discussed with a medical provider before beginning treatment.


Medication is another treatment option, especially when symptoms are severe. SAD, as previously mentioned, is associated with a disturbance in serotonin activity. Antidepressants are used as agents to address symptoms and enhance mood. It may take several weeks for an antidepressant to be fully effective and several medications may need to be tried before finding one that works best. Because many people with SAD often have vitamin D deficiency, nutritional supplements of vitamin D may help improve their symptoms.


Psychotherapy is often called “talk therapy.” Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy often effective in treating SAD. CBT helps people identify thoughts and behaviors that make them feel worse and teaches them how to replace these negative thoughts with more adaptive coping strategies. Because people with SAD often have low energy and lose interest during the winter, psychotherapists use a process called “behavior activation” to encourage people to identify and engage in activities they will likely enjoy. 

Additional tips to address seasonal changes:

  • Use mind/body techniques such as yoga, Tai Chi and meditation to help cope with stress.
  • Get outside. Take a walk or find a sunny place to sit. Even if it is cold or cloudy, getting out early, within two hours of waking, can help alleviate symptoms. 
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activities relieve stress and anxiety. Many people report an elevated mood after exercise.
  • In the fall and winter, create a sunnier and brighter environment. Sit closer to windows and open blinds. 

To talk to an experienced, licensed clinical therapist, please contact our Senior Options team at 847.424.5672 or info@northshoresenioroptions.org.