Seasonal Affective Disorder – It’s Not Just the Winter Blues

woman with a red cap playing in the snow to beat SAD

Movement for the joy of it!


There are many things to love about living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But let’s admit it – winter can be a tough season for those of us who live in the Midwest. Unfortunately, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is more than just a case of the “winter blues.” It can cause mood swings, anxiety, severe depression, and suicidal thoughts when grey skies are the color of the week. In addition, surveys show increased alcohol consumption during the winter months in colder climes. And alcohol can exacerbate mood, anxiety, and depression. It is a vicious cycle.


Seasonal changes in mood and behavior (seasonality) may be closely related to alcoholism. Some patients with alcoholism have a seasonal pattern to their alcohol misuse. They may be self-medicating an underlying seasonal affective disorder (SAD) with alcohol or manifesting a seasonal pattern of alcohol-induced depression. NIH Alcoholism and Seasonal Affective Disorder


The good news is that many effective coping strategies exist to take the edge off the winter doldrums. These range from easy-to-apply steps you can take on your own to professional intervention. If you or a loved one would like to learn more about SAD, addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions, contact Sanford Behavioral Health today. We’re available at 616.202.3326 or via online message and look forward to helping you find the best recovery services possible.


What Causes Winter Depression?

Winter depression, which may be diagnosed as SAD, is most closely linked to daylight. Hence, it is prevalent in areas farther from the equator or where sunlight levels are generally lower due to prevailing weather patterns. For people with SAD, lower light levels disturb their internal clocks, causing unhappy moods. Shifts in light levels likewise disrupt the body’s melatonin and serotonin, naturally produced body chemicals that regulate sleep and mood.


Neurochemical disturbance sometimes leads to a snowballing effect. People with SAD may cope by sleeping excessively, becoming less physical, or engaging in emotional eating. Sadly, these changes may spur even greater depression and less ability to take action – round and round it goes.


Beyond the neurochemical aspects of SAD, it’s also worth noting that the fall/winter holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year, and Valentine’s Day, can also pose a challenge. This is true for many people, especially those already coping with loneliness, addiction, or other mental health conditions. These holidays, which ideally create joy and community, can also trigger social pressure, financial stress, and even feelings of shame and isolation, especially for those already struggling.


Sunrise over a winter lake to depict seasonal affective disorder

Get up early and watch a sunrise (Reeds Lake Grand Rapids, Michigan)- it will energize you throughout the day!


How to Fight Seasonal Depression

While the winter blues and seasonal depression can be severe, many ways exist to combat the effects. Here are just a few suggestions for better mental health in the colder months to get you started:


  • Consider light therapy – SAD lamps provide intense full-spectrum light, which users can absorb by sitting in front of the unit for about 30 minutes daily. Starting use in autumn and continuing through winter may reduce or eliminate SAD symptoms.
  • Stay physically active throughout the winter – Although it may be more challenging to spend time outdoors in the colder months, prioritize joyful movement in some form. Exercise produces natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins. It also helps keep you healthy and can boost self-esteem. Committing to a dance or yoga class, joining a gym, or simply donning boots and going on a daily walk can be a game-changer for people struggling with SAD.
  • Give yourself the gift of community – One of the most significant factors contributing to depression is isolation. We have all had our share of alone time since 2020. Joining groups that meet regularly (in person or online) can give you something to look forward to. Common interest groups, like those centered on gaming, crafting, or other hobbies, can distract you from challenging emotions. Support groups can help you face difficult emotions head-on by providing a space to share and give and receive emotional assistance.
  • If you are experiencing severe depression or suicidal thoughts seek professional help immediately – A licensed therapist or medical doctor is the best person to provide effective help quickly. An increasing number of health insurance plans include mental health coverage, and a simple internet search can also help you discover local services such as Sanford Behavioral Health.
  • For the Suicide and Crisis Hotline, dial 988


Addiction, Depression and other Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions at Sanford Behavioral Health

If you or a loved one is struggling with the winter blues, contact the caring team at Sanford Behavioral Health today. We offer a range of practical services for mental health and substance use treatment in Greater Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we look forward to assisting you. Contact us at 616.202.3326 or reach out online to start the journey toward better health.


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Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.