Beyond the Winter Blues

By Shelby Deering

Poet Anne Bradstreet once said, “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant.”

While that’s certainly true, it’s a safe bet that many of us would be willing to enjoy fall, skip winter completely and head directly into spring. Wouldn’t it be pleasant to soak up Wisconsin’s beauty without the icy roads, snow shoveling and frigid temperatures?

For some Midwesterners, these winter woes are mild inconveniences at best. They go about their days throughout each season with unchanged mood levels and a generally sunny outlook toward life.

And then there are those of us who experience winter in a dramatically different way. For some, feelings about winter go far beyond the standard “winter blues.” For 10 percent of Wisconsin residents, winter is when they endure a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

The National Institute of Mental Health defines Seasonal Affective Disorder as “a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.” They go on to detail the symptoms of SAD, which can include anything from low energy to carbohydrate cravings.

We asked two mental health professionals to explain the ins and outs of SAD, and to share their best tips to improve symptoms.


Licensed Professional Counselor Joseph Fairbanks is the outpatient lead psychotherapist at Elkhorn’s Aurora Behavioral Health Center. Specializing in affective disorders and depression, he is well-versed in the lows that his patients experience during the winter months.

Fairbanks says, “We don’t know the exact causes of SAD, but it’s believed that it’s triggered by a decrease in sunlight, and the effect the decrease in sunlight has on a person’s biological clock or the production of hormones like serotonin or melatonin.”

Dr. Shilagh Mirgain, senior psychologist at Madison’s UW Health, adds that that SAD is “a form of Major Depressive Disorder,” and that the winter blues can be considered a less-serious version of SAD.

She says, “Many people find a lesser form of lower mood called the winter blues that isn’t an official diagnosis. They just feel more down, have less energy and less motivation, sleep more and crave carbohydrates, but the symptoms aren’t causing impairment or distress.”

For those whose moods turn upside-down every winter, SAD can wreak havoc on their daily lives, and they are in their very own category. Mirgain says that symptoms can include low mood, less enjoyment in activities, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, fatigue, moving more slowly, increased agitation and cognitive difficulties.

Beyond the physical effects, Mirgain says that SAD can contribute to becoming sedentary and socially isolated. Sufferers feel less motivated and have difficulty concentrating at work. They also tend to eat unhealthy food and want to sleep more frequently.


Fairbanks says that about 4 to 6 percent of people have winter depression that peaks between December and February, and another 10 to 20 percent may deal with mild SAD symptoms. That’s across the country. Here in Wisconsin, those numbers are more concentrated.

“Because symptoms appear to be triggered by a decrease in sunlight, it’s more common in climates where there is less sunlight in winter months, like Wisconsin,” Fairbanks says, adding, “Up to 10 percent of Wisconsin residents deal with some sort of winter depression, according to a recent study.”

Mirgain shares that young people are more susceptible. She says, “The age group that is most vulnerable to depression is ages 18 to 29.”

And, women tend to be more affected by SAD than men. Fairbanks says, “Women tend to get the disorder much more than men, and usually, people first develop SAD in their 20s.”

Mirgain agrees, saying, “Women are at greater risk in general than men for developing depression, at a rate of 1.5 to 3 times higher.”

Lastly, Fairbanks says that family history also plays a role. “More than half of people with SAD have a close relative who suffers from severe depression,” he says.


Luckily, there’s light at the end of the tunnel and there happen to be several treatment options available to those who deal with SAD.

Before setting out to alleviate your symptoms, you should first make an appointment with your doctor. As Fairbanks advises, “It’s always best to talk to your doctor about your symptoms before trying any treatment.” Mirgain says that if you’re especially struggling, talking to your physician about medication or psychotherapy can be helpful.

After discussing your options with your doctor, you can move forward into several directions when it comes to your treatment. Your first line of defense can be something called a light box.

Fairbanks explains, “Light therapy simulates natural sunlight exposure that you don’t get during the winter months. Patients who use bright light therapy for 30 minutes to two hours a day often start to feel better within a week. It is important to continue to use light therapy until the seasons change, or the depression may come back. An at-home light therapy kit can be purchased online or in many stores for anywhere from $50 to $200.”

Mirgain uses a light box, and she advises to make sure your light box has a minimum of 10,000 LUX, which is the amount of light that the sun emits. She uses hers in the morning, since using it later in the day can impact sleep. She says, “Make sure not to stare directly into the light as it can damage the retina of the eye.”

Vitamin D, otherwise known as the “sunshine vitamin,” is also a powerful ally in the fight against SAD. Mirgain says, “Vitamin D3 supplements are a useful way to prevent the winter blues as those of us living in Wisconsin are not getting Vitamin D3 naturally as the sun’s rays aren’t strong enough to give our body what we need. Mushrooms and fish contain natural forms of Vitamin D, so make sure to include these in your diet.”

Last but not least — get outside, even if the weather is frightful.

Fairbanks says, “Winter is a good time to get outside and learn to enjoy winter sports with others. In Walworth County, there are several cross-country ski trails, hiking trails, opportunities for ice skating and other winter sports.”

Mirgain is on the same page, and says, “If it is a nice, warmer, sunny day, I always encourage people to get outside and have exposure to the sun.”

And if all else fails, we can take comfort in knowing that seasons are temporary, and better days lie ahead when winter melts into spring.

SAD-Busting Suggestions

  • Invest in a pair of snowshoes and hit the trails.
  • Plan a pampering, healthy weekend at one of the area spas.
  • Learn to love winter—and even revel in it—at Lake Geneva’s Winterfest (Jan. 26 – Feb. 3).
  • Get moving at an energizing Yoga class. Choose from many local studios.
  • Pick up some organic, Vitamin D-rich foods.
  • Attend a depression support group or take a class through Aurora Health Care or UW Health.
  • Do some skiing or snowboarding at Alpine Valley Resort, Grand Geneva Resort or Wilmot Mountain.
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