Between the bone chilling temperatures and perpetual gray skies, it’s easy to feel a little blue during the winter months. But are you sure that’s all it is?

If you seem to hit a seasonal funk at the same time every year, it could be more than just feeling under the weather – you could have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a serious mood change that typically occurs during the fall and winter months, though it happens for some in the spring and early summer.

While the specific cause remains unknown, as with other mental health conditions, genetics, age, hormones and your body’s natural chemical makeup can play a role in the development of the depressive condition.

Certain contributing factors that can arise from reduced levels of sunlight in the fall and winter include disruptions in your circadian rhythm, drops in serotonin (a neurotransmitter that affects mood) and unbalanced melatonin levels – a natural hormone that is produced during hours of darkness.

What are the symptoms?

Winter-onset SAD usually appears in late fall or early winter and goes away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Symptoms, which may begin mild and worsen with seasonal progression, include:

  • Appetite changes with weight gain (craving more carbs)
  • Oversleeping
  • Social withdrawal
  • Legthargic movement/Loss of energy
  • Hopelessness
  • Difficulty concentrating

When it comes to summer SAD, symptoms can include mania or a less intense form (hypomania) in addition to agitation, irritability, weight loss, increased sex drive and rapid thoughts and speech.

As with other types of depression, signs and symptoms should be taken seriously as the condition can worsen and lead to more problems if not treated.

Suicidal thoughts or behavior, school or work problems and substance abuse can result if left untreated or undiagnosed and can turn into long-term depression.

Seeing your Doctor

Although there is no true test for SAD, your doctor or mental health provider can make a diagnosis by asking detailed questions about your history of symptoms. The health provider may also perform a physical exam and perform blood tests to rule out other disorders that are similar to SAD.

Finding the Right Treatment

One of the first lines of action usually includes light therapy (phototherapy), where individuals sit next to a special lamp with very bright fluorescent light that mimics light from the sun. A common practice is to sit a couple of feet away from the device for 30 minutes every day with your eyes open, though not looking directly into the light source (you can read, knit, etc.).

Some side effects of light therapy include eye strain and headache, though if you struggle with bipolar disorder, a hypomanic or manic episode can be triggered – so consult your doctor first. Those taking drugs that increase sensitivity to light (i.e. – antipsychotics) should avoid light therapy.

After using light therapy, you may see some results within two to four days, but symptoms of depression usually improve within three to four weeks.

Other treatment options for SAD may include antidepressants if symptoms are severe, but psychotherapy, which can help pinpoint negative thoughts and behaviors that may be making you feel worse, can be an effective treatment to learn healthy ways to cope with SAD and manage stress.

Although there’s no way to prevent SAD, some home winter remedies include spending more time outdoors and making your environment sunnier and brighter. Above all, the best ways to cope include taking care of yourself, practicing stress management and sticking to your recommended treatment plan.