Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder

For some 2 million Brits, autumn-to-winter depression is only around the corner. For most of us, it’s a negligible transition: an extra hour in bed, then lowering skies, a winter hiatus before the year starts again.

But for a small minority, the months of September to April can trigger a heavy toll on depression. In the UK, about 3% of the population is estimated to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a debilitating illness which prevents those affected from functioning normally without appropriate treatment. About 20% of people in the UK experience mildly debilitating symptoms of depression, called “subsyndromal SAD” or “winter blues”.

What are the ‘Winter Blues’?

The term “winter blues” is a colloquial expression used to describe a milder form of seasonal mood change that some people experience during the winter season.

low mood vs depression

It is not a clinical diagnosis but rather a common term used to describe feelings of low energy, sadness, or a slight decrease in motivation during the colder and darker months of the year.

These feelings are generally considered to be a normal reaction to the changes in daylight and weather that occur in winter. While the symptoms of winter blues can be uncomfortable, they usually don’t significantly impair a person’s ability to function in daily life.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a complex depressive illness. It is most likely triggered by the lack of sunlight in winter, which affects levels of hormones (melatonin and serotonin) in the part of the brain controlling mood, sleep and appetite – our circadian rhythms.

Because “traditional” depression usually comes with sleeping problems and reduced appetite, SAD is associated with a yearning to “hibernate”. It’s normal to be affected by the changing of seasons or weather. For example, you may find your mood dips and your sleeping patterns change from one season to the next.

People affected commonly have a strong increased desire to sleep and eat, with a craving for carbohydrates, comfort food and sweet treats.

Symptoms of SAD are wide-ranging and can include depression, lack of energy, concentration problems, anxiety, overeating, loss of libido, social and relationship problems and sudden mood changes or periods of hypomania (over-activity) in spring.

As such, it is best to think of SAD as a spectrum. On one end of the scale, some people are not at all affected by seasonal changes. Further along, those experiencing “winter blues” might find themselves feeling tired, grumpy and a bit down.

At the other end of the depression spectrum, though, some people may have to take time off work and drastically limit their daily routines.

When addressing symptoms related to Seasonal Affective Disorder, CBT challenges the sufferer’s perceived negative thoughts and opinions of a season. Our BABCP-accredited therapists here at Onebright offer the highest standard of CBT possible. Your therapist will encourage you to evaluate your feelings when you think about the winter months and challenge your misconceptions of what you can do during this time.

Signs of winter blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder

Firstly, recognise the symptoms of SAD; diagnosis can usually be made after two to three consecutive winters with the symptoms. Some of which we have listed below:

  • You feel like you literally can’t get out of bed
  • You lose interest in hobbies
  • You crave carbohydrates more than usual
  • You have problems concentrating
  • You experience unusual physicalities
  • You start to avoid socialising
  • You feel increasingly lethargic
  • You become hypersensitive
  • You’ve noticed you have a low libido
  • You only seem to feel the above during the winter months

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How do I know it’s the change in seasons causing me to feel this way?

Identifying whether a change in seasons is causing you to experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or other seasonal mood changes can be challenging, as some symptoms may overlap with general winter blues or other mood disorders.

To be diagnosed with SAD, the symptoms must follow a seasonal pattern, with major depressive episodes occurring during specific times of the year (e.g., fall or winter) for at least two consecutive years. The symptoms should be severe enough to cause distress or impair daily functioning.

The other main indicator that SAD is at work is the timing of these feelings: When does the depression set in and fade away? Most commonly, SAD is a winter-related malady that recurs each year. In the northern hemisphere, it usually starts between September and November and lasts until March or April.

cbt for SAD

Medication and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Antidepressants may be helpful in SAD. Since medication that causes drowsiness is often impractical, doctors usually prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These work by increasing the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter thought to have a positive influence on mood, sleep and eating.

Alternatively, evidence that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a treatment for anxiety and depression in general, can help seasonal depression and may prevent it from recurring in future years.


Of course, the first step is to recognise you are affected. The combination of treatments and preventive measures best for tackling your symptoms will be highly individual and should be discussed with your doctor.

If you can relate to most of the above, and it’s affecting your day-to-day life, then it could be time to get help. This doesn’t have to be something you just put up with.

Here are some top CBT tips that can help if you are struggling with SAD right now:

Recognise the signs and how it affects you
Maximise your exposure to light (SAD LED/blue light therapeutic lamps)
Eat a healthy and balanced diet
Manage your stress levels (take time out, break tasks into small steps, delegate)
Look into having CBT therapy
Stay active

It’s essential to recognise that while the winter blues are considered a milder and more transient condition, SAD is a legitimate mental health disorder that requires professional attention and treatment. If someone is experiencing significant distress or impairment in their daily life due to seasonal mood changes, it’s essential for them to seek help from a qualified mental health professional.

At Onebright, we have an 87% recovery rate for those who complete our therapy sessions. The industry standard is only 52%, so that’s one of many reasons you should opt for private mental health care with us. We also offer cost-effective online therapy, where you can work through modules at your own pace with assisted calls from one of our therapists.

Whether you’re struck down by “seasonal blues” or SAD depression, the most important thing to remember is this: you don’t have to wait for winter to pass to start feeling better.


Lastly, if you or someone you know suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, call our friendly client services team today to discuss CBT therapy in London and the UK.

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