How to tell the difference between the ‘winter blues’ and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

By Natalie Oleson, MSW, LICSW • JFCS Counselor


Are you totally sick of winter? If you’re anything like me, you’re getting tired of the sun going down by dinnertime, driving on slippery roads, and bundling up like Maggie from The Simpsons. Many people notice a difference in their moods during the winter. How can you tell if it’s the “winter blues” or something more significant like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?


SAD is a kind of depression that peaks during different seasons – typically during fall and winter. The Mayo Clinic estimates that 3 million Americans suffer from this each year. Symptoms can include feeling depressed most days, losing interest in activities you used to enjoy, having low energy, sleep problems, changes in appetite or weight, having trouble concentrating, feeling hopeless, or having thoughts of death or suicide.


Children can also be affected by SAD. The symptoms for children are similar to that of adults. Is your child more moody or irritable than normal? Are they sleeping more? Do they seem less interested in activities that used to bring them joy? Are they struggling more in school? If any of these things seem to fit, talk to your child’s doctor for recommendations.


While the symptoms may be similar for both the “winter blues” and SAD, there is one very important question: Is it getting in the way of your life? For example, are you missing more work or school? Are you withdrawing from friends and family?


There are some common risk factors in those who suffer from SAD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are four times more likely to be diagnosed than men. People who have a history of depression or other mental health diagnoses, and/or a history of trauma are also at a higher risk for SAD. Finally, people who live further from the equator have higher rates of SAD. This is likely due to our bodies’ responses to having less sunlight (and less direct sunlight). Circadian rhythms (which tell us when to be awake and asleep) are partially controlled by the sun. This is why people can feel more fatigue in the winter, when the sun goes down earlier.


If your symptoms are less severe, there are things you can do to help lift your mood during these long months:

  • Get some sunlight whenever possible
  • Consider using a light therapy box (it mimics sunlight)
  • Check to see if you are deficient in Vitamin D
  • Go to bed and wake up at consistent times
  • Try to get 7 hours of sleep each night
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week
  • Talk to a therapist about these feelings


If you feel like you could use some additional support for you or your child – especially if you have any thoughts of hurting yourself – seek immediate help from a mental health or medical professional. There are many treatment strategies that can be helpful, including talk therapy, mindfulness, medication, and light therapy.


If you are interested in counseling services, resources, or more information on this subject, JFCS can help! Our therapists work with people of all ages. You do not need to be Jewish to come here. Call 952-546-0616 or click here for more information on JFCS Counseling and Mental Health Services.


Natalie Oleson, MSW, LICSW

I am a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker. I received a Master’s of Social Work degree from University of Saint Thomas. My specialties include working with people ages 3-17, especially those struggling with trauma, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidality. I also help parents learn strategies to support their child at home. I have experience working with kids and families at home, in the hospital, in an outpatient clinic, and in a day treatment program. I am very passionate about working with children, since I believe early intervention gives a person the best chance for success. I use evidence-based practices such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), mindfulness, teaching coping skills, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and play therapy.