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Seasonal depression: UK expert explains how to understand, overcome it

By Lindsey Piercy 

People often experience stress, anxiety or even depression during the winter months. Each year, about 10% of adults in the United States experience seasonal affective disorder. The condition can reflect a change in serotonin levels and be linked to depression.

Matt Southward, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, is researching treatment outcomes for those coping with anxiety, depression and personality disorders. He also works in the Treatment Innovation for Psychological Services Lab.

In the Q&A session below, Southward shares advice and tips for beating the “winter blues.”

UKNow: How would you describe seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to someone who has never experienced it?

Southward: SAD can be thought of as experiencing depressive episodes that start around the same time of year each year and seem to resolve around the same time of year each year. SAD is a type of major depressive disorder, which is characterized by feeling down, sad or uninterested in things most of the time for at least two weeks with other possible disruptions in sleep, energy and eating.

UKNow: What are the most common symptoms of seasonal depression, and how do they differ from symptoms of clinical depression?

Southward: Symptoms of seasonal depression more often include things like having no energy, sleeping too much, overeating, gaining weight and craving carbohydrate foods. Although these can be present in clinical depression, they’re more likely to occur in seasonal depression episodes and may be a good way to check if you’re experiencing seasonal depression in particular.

UKNow: Are there daily habits you would recommend that can help people cope? Do you have any advice when it comes to being proactive?

Southward: Get active! It’s hard to do when it’s much colder and darker out, so being creative about how to be physically and socially active can be key. This might look like mall walking with friends, doing small, individual exercises at home before or after work, or planning more regular weekend outings with loved ones. But also checking in with ourselves. Reflecting on how much energy we have, taking a look at how much we’re actually sleeping or eating — these can be ways to check if we might be experiencing symptoms of seasonal depression.

UKNow: When should people seek help/see a professional?

Southward: The best sign to seek out help is when these symptoms start to get in the way of doing things that matter to you. If you notice a lack of interest in or energy for seeing people you normally like to see. If you sleep through your alarm and miss scheduled meetings. Or if you notice being a lot harder on yourself. Many of us will experience symptoms of seasonal depression because we have fewer options to be as active in the winter, but when those symptoms get in the way of doing things we care about, it can be a good time to reach out for help.

UKNow: What is one thing you wish everyone knew about SAD?

Southward: Seasonal depression is not purely a winter condition! Although for us in the northern hemisphere, that’s more common, it’s also possible for it to occur at other times of year. So if you notice a seasonal pattern to when depressive episodes occur (that’s not due to added stressors, like the start of the school year), these could also be types of seasonal depression.

UKNow: Do you have any additional tips for tackling stress/anxiety/depression in 2023?

Southward: I’m a big advocate of self-compassion. It can be hard when things aren’t going well, and it can be so important to give ourselves a break by normalizing our experiences, getting feedback from friends and colleagues, and reflecting on our successes to promote a sense that we’re worthwhile and capable. This can be especially tough after the holidays or dealing with New Year’s resolutions, and I think that makes it all the more important.

UKNow: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Southward: Sleep is so important to regulating all aspects of our bodies and well-being. When it’s cold out, the temptation to just stay in bed longer or to go to bed earlier at night when it’s dark early can be really strong (trust me, I feel it often). Waking up and getting out of bed at a consistent time that you can stick to on weekdays and weekends, as well as trying to go to bed at a similar time each night, can be one way to combat oversleeping symptoms and give us more time to embrace more meaningful activities in our days.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $501 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

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