Early detection and treatment of winter depression

Our state of mind often changes during the winter. Many people experience a sort of misery that goes beyond the typical winter blues. This can take the form of winter depression, a type of seasonally related depression.

08.11.2023 Imke Schmitz 5 minutes

What is winter depression?

Winter depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD for short), is a form of depression that occurs with the changing of the seasons. It occurs primarily during the darker, colder months of the year when the days are shorter. Winter depression generally begins in late autumn and persists until spring. As with other forms of depression, those affected experience persistent despondency, a loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy and a general lack of energy.

The so-called winter blues are a milder form of winter depression. They can cause similar symptoms like fatigue and sadness, but these are less severe and not as long-lasting. The winter blues do not have as adverse an impact on the ability of those affected to function in day-to-day life, and the symptoms generally dissipate when the sunlight starts to return.

What is the difference between classic depression and winter depression?

The difference between “classic” depression and winter depression is that winter depression is linked directly to a lack of sunlight. The lack of daylight leads to an imbalance of serotonin and melatonin – two hormones that regulate mood and sleep. Winter depression often arises as a depressive episode within a case of classic depression, which means people with classic depression may find that their symptoms are more pronounced in the winter months.

What are the possible causes of winter depression?

The dark, colder months of the year don’t just bring frost and snow; for some people, they also bring with them the symptoms of a winter depression. The causes are varied and closely linked to changes in the environment. The primary cause is the lack of light: when the days get shorter, you get less sunlight. This affects the serotonin level in our brain. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter for mood regulation and tends to decrease with less sunlight. This, in turn, can lead to despondency.

There is also a link between depression in the winter and vitamin D: vitamin D, often referred to as the “sunshine vitamin”, is formed in the body when it is exposed to sunlight. Absorbing too little vitamin D during the winter months can result in depressive feelings. The hormone melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, also plays a key role. A lack of daylight in winter can affect melatonin production, which can disrupt sleep cycles and lead to fatigue and low mood.

Winter depression: what are common symptoms?

Winter depression is associated with a variety of symptoms that impact the quality of life of those affected. Possible symptoms include:

  • Despondency: a feeling of hopelessness or pessimism that can last for weeks or months.
  • Lack of energy: overwhelming fatigue and a lack of drive can turn even the simplest of routine daily tasks into a challenge. Those affected prefer to withdraw than to leave the house.
  • Loss of interest: they may cease to enjoy their hobbies and activities. Even things that were once fun are now dull and unappealing.
  • Sleep problems: affected individuals may experience difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, or the feeling of not being rested despite having sufficient sleep. Otherwise effective sleeping tips don’t work either.
  • Concentration problems: those affected may have difficulty concentrating or remembering things. This can lead to a drop in performance.
  • Irritability: minor issues can lead to annoyance or stress, tolerance levels seem to be lower, and patience is in short supply.

How does winter depression manifest in children?

Winter depression isn’t just a phenomenon that affects adults, children can exhibit symptoms of winter depression too. Since children cannot always express or understand their feelings, the challenge is often detecting it in time. Common symptoms in children include irritability, fatigue, difficulties at school and a loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy. As a parent, you should pay attention to such changes in behaviour and your child’s mood. If you notice signs of winter depression, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. 

How long does winter depression last?

With winter depression, the duration and the severity of the symptoms may vary from person to person, but winter depression generally begins in late autumn and dissipates when the days start to get longer and brighter in spring. The dark winter months, when the sun often hides behind the clouds, are the peak time for this seasonal depression. The symptoms of winter depression tend to emerge slowly and may increase with the onset of winter.

If you spot any of these symptoms, try to seek support as soon as possible. Even if the dark months are only temporary, the impact of winter depression on quality of life is a serious issue.

What can you do to combat winter depression?

There are various approaches you can take to treat winter depression that will alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life. For instance, daylight lamps can be used to help ward off winter depression. The bright artificial light can compensate for the lack of natural sunlight and boost your mood if you sit in front of it for a certain time each day.

St. John’s Wort is a popular plant-based remedy for winter depression. It contains the active ingredient hyperforin, which can inhibit the reuptake of messenger substances like serotonin in the brain. Thanks to the increased availability of this mood regulator, St. John’s Wort can have a positive impact on mental health. We strongly advise speaking to your doctor before resorting to plant-based remedies for treating winter depression.

Note: since winter depression may also be part of classic depression, you should take any symptoms seriously and get them checked out. Take up any offers of psychotherapeutic help. This is the most effective way to combat winter depression within the context of a case of classic depression.

What are the right exercises for winter depression?

In cases of winter depression, it is important to combine activity with periods of rest. Try different methods of relaxation such as breathing techniques, and take a little break. Yoga exercises combine movement and relaxation, and you can easily fit these into your everyday routine. Running is healthy and another good way of combating winter depression. Browse for more inspiration in the Helsana Coach app and find exercises that suit your needs.

How can you prevent winter depression?

To prevent winter depression or the winter blues, use the available daylight as best possible. Even just a short walk outdoors on a sunny day can lift your mood. You should also exercise regularly: physical activity, whether inside or outside, promotes the release of mood-enhancing endorphins and can stabilise your mood.

You should also pay attention to your diet: foods that are rich in vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids can support your mental balance and alleviate the symptoms of winter depression. These include walnuts, salmon, tuna and avocado. While there’s no diet that can completely eliminate winter depression, you can at least have a little influence over it with certain foods.

Likewise, healthy sleep is essential to your mental well-being. Decide on a set time for sleeping and stick to it to ensure you are getting enough sleep. Most people require around eight hours’ sleep. You should also maintain social connections. Even if you sometimes find it difficult in the autumn and winter months, interacting with your friends and family can lift your mood.

If you notice these tips are not helping with your winter blues or winter depression, you should consult your doctor. Winter depression is a challenge that should be taken seriously, but one that can be overcome with the right measures.

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