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Seasonally SAD: Why Is Your Anxiety Worse in Winter?
Mental Health

Seasonally SAD: Why Is Your Anxiety Worse in Winter?

By Your Health Staff
Posted: February 16, 2024

Winter can be tough on your mental health. However, Those seasonal pressures may not completely explain why, like many people, your anxiety may worsen in winter. The reason may be winter-pattern seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that coincides with the reduced daylight hours of winter. Treatment can lift your mood and help you weather the colder months.

Anxiety Alert

“Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life, and it’s not necessarily bad,” says Allison White, LCSW, supervisor of the Living Well Network at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare. “Anxiety can sharpen your focus and help you make decisions. If, however, you often experience anxiety for an extended period of time during the winter months, you may have SAD, which can affect your health in a variety of ways. This condition is more intense and long-lasting than the winter blues many people feel.”

If you have SAD, the arrival of winter weather and reduced sunlight may bring shifts in your mood and behavior. In addition to frequently feeling anxious, you may sleep and eat more, which can lead to gaining weight. You may feel a strong urge to stay indoors and avoid friends and family. 

Other symptoms of SAD include:

  • Difficulty focusing on tasks or remembering information
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Persistent feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
  • Unexplained headaches, body pain or digestive problems

Why does SAD occur? Low levels of serotonin, a mood-regulating brain chemical, may contribute, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In addition, fewer hours of sunlight during winter reduces your opportunities to get vitamin D, which may help fuel serotonin activity. Overproduction of the hormone melatonin, which helps control your circadian rhythm, may play a role in SAD by causing you to oversleep. 

Anxiety Worse in Winter? Make Changes for the Better

If winter anxiety and depression have a silver lining, it’s the variety of options available to help you feel better. Start by making changes to your everyday routine that can benefit your health and mood.

“Lack of sunlight can make anxiety and depression worse in winter,” White says. “When it’s sunny, don’t waste the opportunity to help boost your vitamin D levels. Get outside and go for a walk, do some yard work or try a new outdoor activity.”

You can do more to support your mental health, including:

  • Devote time each day to an activity you enjoy.
  • Eat a healthy diet and minimize foods high in sugar, sodium and unhealthy fats. SAD can make you more likely to overindulge.
  • Stay social by checking in with friends and family and making regular plans to spend time with the important people in your life.


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Finding the Light When Anxiety Is Worse in Winter

Dealing with heightened anxiety and SAD may require a multipronged strategy. Don’t wait to see your primary care provider (PCP) if you experience symptoms of depression. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you can return to feeling like you. In addition to recommending healthy lifestyle changes, your PCP can prescribe treatment. A common one is light therapy.

“Light therapy involves sitting in front of a specialized lamp called a light box, which is many times brighter than a typical light bulb and has a special filter to block harmful UV rays,” White says. “Exposure to this ultra-bright light for at least 30 minutes each day can help reduce your symptoms when sunlight is at its lowest levels of the year.”

More Ways to Alleviate Winter Anxiety and Depression

If light therapy doesn’t give you the relief you hoped for, don’t worry — other treatment options are available.

Talking with a behavioral health provider, for example, may help you identify and understand the thoughts that contribute to anxiety and depression and find better ways to handle them. This is known as cognitive behavioral therapy, and it’s an effective treatment for some people with SAD.

You and your PCP may discuss whether antidepressant medications make sense for you. Over time, these medicines can help your mood improve by altering the production or use of serotonin and other chemicals in the brain.

“Winter-pattern SAD usually gets better with the return of more sunlight in the spring and summer, but why put up with symptoms until then?” White says. “By seeking help for anxiety and depression, you can improve your mood sooner and enjoy everything that’s wonderful about winter. Plus, if SAD returns next winter, you’ll be better equipped to manage it.” 

Need help managing anxiety, regardless of season? Contact the Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare Living Well Network to get the care and support you need.

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