Blue Monday: Combatting the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Written by Nicole Caines, R Psych

There is no actual scientific evidence that the third Monday in January is the saddest day of the year. Blue Monday likely started as a marketing ploy to convince people to travel. Nevertheless, many people resonate with the idea of Blue Monday and struggle with their mental health during the winter months as compared to warmer months.


Well, let’s start with a definition of SAD.

SAD is characterized by recurrent depressive episodes, typically occurring in winter (though some people experience SAD during the summer).

The depression experienced is generally mild to moderate and doesn’t involve suicide risk. However, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t impact quality of life and functioning at work and at home. Symptoms include excessive sleeping, increased appetite, cravings for carbs, lack of interest in activities, low energy, and trouble concentrating.

The term ‘winter blues’ is often used to describe SAD or a less severe form of seasonal low mood that does not meet full diagnostic criteria for SAD. To meet the criteria for SAD (clinically called depressive disorder with seasonal pattern), individuals must experience depression at certain times of year and remission at other times of year.

That said, many people with standard depression also feel worse during the winter months, despite that fact that they would not meet the above criteria.

To get back to the ‘why’ question, it is believed that SAD may be caused by biochemical imbalances in the brain that are caused by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight.

Here are some suggestions for beating the winter blues and its more serious cousin, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD):

• Light therapy. The best light therapy is getting outside, even if it’s not sunny. If that’s not possible, use a light therapy lamp for at least 20 minutes early in the day (using it at night can impact circadian rhythms and disrupt sleep). Some studies have found that light therapy alone can reverse symptoms of SAD and it is the treatment of choice, according to research. Light therapy typically takes a few weeks to work, so don’t give up if it doesn’t work right away.

• Try to maintain a social life, even if it means bundling up and going out when it’s dark and cold outside. Isolation can contribute to low mood.

• Medication. Some studies have found that certain antidepressants are effective in treating SAD. Please speak with your doctor if you would like to pursue this option.

• Talk therapy. Talking with a therapist can help you to address patterns of depression that can make SAD worse and can help you to identify strategies for boosting mood.

• Maintain healthy lifestyle habits, such as regular exercise, healthy eating, and getting adequate sleep.

• There is some evidence that vitamin D deficiency has a role to play in SAD, and that light therapy alone does not restore vitamin D to sufficient levels. Speak to your doctor or another qualified health professional before undertaking vitamin D supplementation, as taking too much can be harmful, and recommended supplementation levels vary from province to province based on the levels of deficiency that have been found. Since we cannot get sufficient levels of vitamin D from food and sun in Alberta, Alberta Health Services recommends that all Albertans take a supplement.

Take care this winter!

Click for more information on Monarch Psychology’s counselling services for depression and mood concerns. 



Berk, M., Sanders, K.M., Pasco, J.A., Jacks, F.N., Williams, L.J., Hayles, A.L., & Dodd, S. (2007). Vitamin D deficiency may play a role in depression. Medical Hypotheses, 69(6), 1316-1319.

Gloth, F.M. 3rd, Alam, W., Hollis, B. (1999). Vitamin D vs broad spectrum phototherapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 3(1), 5-7.

Rosenthal, N.E., Sack, D.A., Jacobsen, F.M., et al. (1986). Melatonin in seasonal affective disorder and phototherapy. Journal of Neural transmission, 21, 257-267.

Partonen, T., Lönnqvist, J. (1998). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Mol Diag Ther,  9, 203–212. (1998)



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Nicole Caines