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Here's Why You Actually Get Depressed In The Winter

It's not just ~the winter blues~.

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As the days get shorter and darker, you probably find yourself feeling more tired, cranky, and lethargic than usual.

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And when that happens, you might've wondered whether you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression. To help you understand why you might not be feeling so hot and what to do about it, BuzzFeed Life talked to psychologist Kelly Rohan, professor and director of clinical training at University of Vermont, and psychologist Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts. Here's what you need to know.

1. First things first: Seasonal depression is a real thing.

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It's not just ~the winter blues~. "Many people think it's a very minor problem and that it's not the same as 'real' depression, but seasonal affective disorder is a clinical problem worthy of treatment," says Rohan.

In fact, it's a subset of major depressive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The difference between it and other types of depression is that it follows a seasonal pattern, meaning that the symptoms are present in certain months but completely absent in others.

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2. It actually has to do with darker months and shorter days — not the weather.

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Even though it's associated with winter, SAD isn't really related to colder temperatures. It's actually tied to the light-dark cycle — like when it starts getting dark super early. For most people, SAD averages about five months out of the year, according to Rohan, but obviously everyone is a little bit different. The exact duration and time of year differs depending on where you live, and SAD is more common in places farther from the equator.

3. SAD has no specific cause, but women and people who work indoors with little sunlight are at greater risk of having the disorder.

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According to Winch, because it's largely an issue of lack of light, your job could make you more susceptible. "Because of the short days, many people get into work before it's light, spend the day inside, and then leave after the sun goes down, and they are more at risk because they're not getting any sunlight whatsoever."

As for the gender part of it, the female-to-male ratio of people with seasonal depression is 3:1.

4. The symptoms are similar to those of other types of depression.

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These can include sadness, disinterest in things you used to find enjoyable, significant change in sleep patterns or appetite, feeling lethargic or fatigued, and difficulty concentrating. Winch also notes that you should watch out for irritability in particular — many people don't recognize it as a symptom of SAD because it's not, well, sadness.

If you're not sure whether what you're experiencing is winter blues or something more serious, Rohan suggests asking yourself, "How much are the symptoms I'm experiencing affecting my day-to-day life, my ability to perform at school or at work, or my important relationships?"

If the symptoms are getting in the way of those things, it very well could be SAD and it is worth addressing.

5. Speaking of, if you suffer from depression year-round, it's possible for your symptoms to get worse in the fall and winter — but that's not technically SAD.

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But it IS definitely something you should talk to your doctor about. "A seasonal pattern is still something to address in treatment," says Rohan. "You may benefit from dialing up therapy or medication."

6. No matter what, though, you're going to want to check with a professional to know what's really going on.

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There are a lot of factors that doctors will take into consideration before honing in on a diagnosis, says Rohan. For example, a lot of people feel lonely or sad around the holidays for circumstantial reasons without necessarily having SAD. Not to mention, it's possible that you suffer from depression year-round and are mistaking it for seasonal depression only, says Winch, so you want to make sure you're treating the right thing.

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7. Light therapy is a go-to treatment for seasonal depression, but check with a doctor before you get started.

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These light boxes simulate sunlight and are generally safe and easy to use. When used properly, the risks are minimal, because of a diffusing screen that filters out the majority of harmful UV rays (unlike tanning beds, which are NOT a good replacement for light therapy). Because of that, the chance of it upping your risk of skin cancer is minimal, but it can never hurt to use sunscreen as an extra precaution, says Rohan.

When buying a light therapy lamp, make sure it's one specifically for SAD, says Winch, since some are for skin conditions or other issues. Each light box will come with its own set of instructions, but typically, you'll be instructed to use it for 15–20 minutes in the morning, a foot or two away from you, and pointed toward your face. Be sure not to look directly into the light, and if you feel jumpy or restless, Winch suggests dialing it back by a few minutes. That said, Rohan strongly recommends seeing a professional first to figure out the right dose and avoid any side effects.

8. Therapy is also an excellent option and may help prevent seasonal depression the following year.

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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of therapy that focuses on problem solving and treating the challenges of daily life, has been associated with big improvements in seasonal depression, according to Rohan. Not only that, but CBT patients have fewer relapses and less severe symptoms in the following years.

"We think it's because the treatment changes a person," says Rohan. "They're learning in the treatment how to think differently when they're depressed and how to be more proactive, so they're fundamentally changed at the end of treatment and less likely to react with depression to stress."

Check out this guide to starting therapy if you don't know where to start.

9. Antidepressants are options, too.

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Obviously this is something that you need to talk to your doctor about to see exactly what's right for you, but according to Rohan, the effectiveness of antidepressants in treating seasonal depression is comparable to that of other types of depression.

10. Pay attention to the weather forecast and make sure to get outside when some rare sunlight appears.

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This is especially important if you work a desk job inside, says Winch. Carve out a part of your day to go grab lunch or a coffee or just take a lap around the block, because nothing is more effective than natural light. Even if it's overcast outside, a little is better than nothing at all.

12. Make sure you resist the urge to hibernate for the winter.

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Yes, it's tempting, but it could make your depression worse in the long run. "Keeping an active social life is also important," says Winch. "Because if you're not going out in the evenings, if you're staying inside and doing nothing, you're signaling to your body that it should shut down for the winter and it shuts down mentally as well."

13. It's also now more important than ever to make sure you're eating a balanced diet and getting exercise.

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A balanced diet and exercise, specifically cardio, have been proven to be effective in treating depressive symptoms, says Winch, not to mention anxiety and stress. It's no replacement for professional treatment, but it can make a difference for sure. "Yes, it takes effort, but it's something you can do for both your physical and mental health."

Winch suggests about a half hour of exercise at least four times a week. Here are some cardio exercises you can do that don't involve running, in case the weather has you wanting to stay inside.

14. Ditto for maintaining a regular sleep schedule.

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Just like other types of depression, seasonal depression comes with disturbances in sleep, so go the extra mile to stick to a strict schedule to keep things from snowballing. "One night, you get four hours of sleep, and the next day, you are exhausted and stressed and don't function as well, and things cascade from there," says Winch. "A stricter sleep schedule will resolve most sleep problems and it will prevent depression from getting more of a toehold."

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