SAD is More Than Just the Winter Blues

By Samantha Phillips

If you start experiencing symptoms of depression in the winter, you’re not alone. Many people report feeling sad when the sun begins setting earlier in the day and the weather turns bitter.

Psychologists report that blue light therapy is an effective way to treat seasonal affective disorder.

Some of these people may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of major depression that occurs between early winter and spring.

However, feeling blue in the winter doesn’t mean you have SAD. According to, only 4-6 percent of Americans experience the disorder.

Mike Raulin, a Youngstown State University psychology professor, said it’s normal for people to feel down because of the cold weather, lack of sunlight and other hassles associated with winter, but an individual who has SAD is affected by the seasonal changes on a biological level.

“At a particular date, they experience a slowing of their metabolism and other changes in the body, usually in November,” he said. “Then there’s a reversal of that sometime in early spring, it may be late March or April.”

Along with a change in metabolism, individuals may also experience a drop in serotonin and melatonin levels, and a disruption of their “biological clock” from the lack of sunlight. This can lead to symptoms of depression, such as low energy, loss of interest in activities and having trouble sleeping.

Raulin said people who have SAD suffer from major depressive episodes from winter to spring yearly. It can trigger depression in individuals who don’t normally feel depressed.

“Now we know how to measure those physiological changes,” he said. “You can predict when it will happen year after year, even though it’s a fairly rare disorder.”

The good news is, there are treatment options available to combat SAD.

Blue light therapy is often recommended because it mimics sunlight and helps a person regulate their biological clock. Raulin said it has to be a full spectrum light to be effective.

Brian Wells, a YSU academic advisor, described having SAD as feeling inside the way it looks outside, or feeling down when it’s cloudy and dark outside. He said he has benefitted from having a blue light in his office.

“The instructions indicate to place the device in your peripheral and there are three brightness settings on my particular light,” he said. “I use it five days a week from the end of October until sometime in March.”

Raulin said a person should see a psychologist if they start having symptoms or SAD or depression.

Ann Jaronski, director of Student Counseling at YSU, said there are medications available as well. She said exercise can also help boost an individual’s mood, even if it’s just a walk around the block.

No matter what diagnosis you are given, you should seek treatment if you are finding daily functions like getting out of bed harder to do, Jaronski said. She said having a regular sleep schedule and eating healthy can help ward off negative moods.

SAD is difficult to deal with, but is short-lived, Raulin said.

“With SAD, you can tell yourself you know it’s going to go away and you know around when. You know you will enjoy your life again,” he said.

Whether a student is suffering from SAD or another form of depression, Raulin said it’s important to get professional treatment, take care of yourself and try doing things you loved in the past, even if you don’t enjoy it as much.