Autumn and winter depression: when the dark season leads to dark moods

07. November 2019

The days are getting shorter, the clock is changed, the temperatures are dropping and the first autumn storm sweeps the brightly colored leaves off the trees. The year is coming to an end and it is slowly but surely becoming winter. Although there is also great magic in the change of seasons, many people feel a slight melancholy when autumn and winter begin.

But what happens when this slight melancholy turns into a permanently depressed mood and our energy level drops to zero? Then we can no longer just talk about “winter blues”, but have to consider the possibility of autumn and winter depression.

What is autumn and winter depression?

Experts refer to this particular form of depression as “seasonal dependent depression” or “seasonal affective disorder” – SAD for short (Wittchen & Heuer, 2006). In this case, seasonal dependence means that the symptoms always occur at the onset of autumn and winter and improve again with the onset of spring.

Particularly noticeable in fall and winter depression are constant fatigue, ravenous appetite, and associated weight gain. In addition, there are common depression symptoms such as listlessness, irritability, and baseless negative mood (read more here).

Diagnosing fall and winter depression
For seasonal depression to be diagnosed, the pattern of symptoms must repeat over two years: During the transition from summer to winter, the above symptoms must be detectable for more than two weeks (ICD-10).

How common are fall and winter depression?

Not all depression occurring in the fall or winter is seasonal: fall and winter depression is present in only one in ten new cases of depression diagnosed at this time of year. It is thus significantly less common than “classic” depression. In Europe, an estimated 1-2% of the population is affected.

Differences between North and South
Regional differences in the prevalence of fall and winter depression can be found across the world map: They are rarer in southern countries with many hours of sunshine and milder winter days than in northern countries, where the sun shines for only a few hours on some days of winter and it is much darker

Importantly, the already mentioned “winter blues” does exist, it resembles seasonal depression, but is of shorter duration and milder in severity.

What is the cause of autumn and winter depression?

As with any mental illness, it is impossible to pinpoint a completely clear cause of autumn and winter depression. What is clear, however, is that there are biochemical factors that favor the development of the disorder: Little light leads to an increased release of the sleep hormone melatonin, which makes us feel tired. In addition, the serotonin level drops due to the overproduction of melatonin. This has a negative impact on our mood, because serotonin is largely responsible for our sense of well-being (Schandry, 2011).

Preparing for hibernation
Many researchers also fall back on the evolutionary explanation that some people have a tendency to hibernate: This causes activity levels to drop and appetites to ramp up in order to get “winter flab” for the months ahead. Another explanation for cravings, however, is that the organism tries to ramp up serotonin levels (see above) again with sugary foods.

Our living environment
In addition to the factors already mentioned, there are our environmental conditions, such as the fact that most people do not pursue their profession outdoors, but work indoors. Of the daylight, most full-time professionals see very little in autumn and winter. Then, with stress and deadline pressure, lunch breaks often fall flat and the only chance for fresh air and light goes away.

What are the consequences of autumn and winter depression?

Sufferers of autumn and winter depression suffer from the symptoms and forfeit a lot of quality of life due to them. Sometimes the ability to work is also significantly reduced. The constant, leaden fatigue makes everyday life more difficult, and the possible weight gain that accompanies cravings puts additional strain on the body and psyche. The situation can worsen to the point that an inpatient stay becomes necessary.

Treating fall and winter depression

If you suspect fall and winter depression in yourself or your loved one, do not hesitate to seek professional help. Specially tailored therapy programs can provide targeted treatment for fall and winter depression. In addition to psychotherapeutic offers, a targeted activity build-up and, if necessary, medication, light therapy also helps: patients are placed in front of a daylight lamp every day for a longer period of time and thus absorb more light, which inhibits melatonin production and thus has an activating effect on the organism.

Tips and tricks

In addition to medical and psychotherapeutic treatment, these little tricks can help to overcome depressive mood or the “winter blues”.

Fresh air and exercise

Take a spin around the block at least once a day for some fresh air – no matter the weather.

Daylight lamp

Special lamps with a high lux unit (light intensity) can reduce the symptoms of autumn and winter depression.

Colors

Use clothes and home accessories in bright and friendly colors.

Essential oils

Especially jasmine and bergamot oil bring back the memory of summer.

Nutrition

Look for variety on your plate and colorful fruits and vegetables.

Maintain social contacts

The exchange with other people is good for you and helps against tiredness and melancholy.

Enjoy

Embrace the beautiful sides of autumn and winter: for example, with a good book, snuggled up warm in front of the fireplace.

Like normal depression, autumn and winter depression are also easily treatable. Regardless of whether you are only suffering from the “winter blues” or from autumn and winter depression – we wish you that you get through the winter well and, above all, healthy. And don’t forget – the next spring always comes sooner than you think!

References

(1) Dilling, H., & Freyberger, H. J. (2012). Pocket guide to the ICD-10 classification of mental disorders. Bern (Huber).>
(2) Schandry, R. (2011). Biological psychology. Beltz
(3) Wittchen, H. U., & Hoyer, J. (2006). Clinical psychology & psychotherapy (Vol. 1131). Heidelberg: Springer.

Categories: Depression

Friederike Reuver
Autor:in Friederike Reuver
"Die LIMES Schlosskliniken haben sich auf die Behandlung von psychischen und psychosomatischen Erkrankungen spezialisiert. Mit Hilfe des Blogs möchten wir als Klinikgruppe die verschiedenen psychischen Erkrankungen näher beleuchten und verschiedene Therapien sowie aktuelle Themen vorstellen."

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