What is seasonal affective disorder?

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As the weather gets colder and the days become shorter, you may experience feelings of “winter blues.” This is common among 10% to 20% of Americans, with the cold weather and lack of sunshine contributing to feelings of sadness and indifference. However, if these negative feelings linger for longer than a week or two, it may be something more serious like seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is a type of depression that is recurrent with the changing of seasons and lasts four to five months each year, according to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH). Most people experience SAD during the winter months, when the days are shorter and there is less sunlight.

This image depicts an older woman longingly staring out the window, representing seasonal affective disorder.

Signs and symptoms to watch for with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Since SAD is a form of depression, individuals may experience typical major depression symptoms as well as some specific to SAD.

According to the NIMH, common symptoms of major depression include:

  • Feeling sad most of the day, nearly every day
  • A loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Increased agitation or irritability
  • Low energy
  • Extreme feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide

As winter sets in, watch for these additional signs and symptoms that can be specifically related to SAD:

  • Oversleeping
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal

Not all symptoms appear in every person experiencing SAD and it can look different in every case. If the winter season rolls around and you or your loved one starts experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms or disruptions to their daily life, it may be time to consider speaking with a physician about SAD.

Common ways to help with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

SAD symptoms can vary in severity. One important way to reduce symptoms is to follow best practices for mental health. These best practices include:

  • Checking in with yourself – This can be via journaling or a simple meditation session. Note any changes in your mood or energy levels and track how different activities make you feel.
  • Sticking to a routine – It can be helpful to have structure to your day, even if your schedule allows for flexibility. Try going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Participating in routine self-care such as stretching and practicing gratitude could help too.
  • Continuing activities that make you feel good – Whether it’s doing your favorite hobbies, prioritizing exercise, cooking healthy meals or connecting with your loved ones, it is important to be consistent so your mental well-being remains steady.

If these self-help strategies aren’t helping or if your mental well-being gets worse, reach out to your physician to discuss other professional interventions.

Getting professional help for seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Although SAD is a type of depression, it may respond to different types of treatment than regular depression. Before deciding on a treatment, it is best to talk with your physician to find what will work best for you.

  • Light therapy – Although scientists are not completely sure what causes SAD, it can be linked to the absence of the sun. This is because the sun helps maintain and regulate serotonin. Serotonin is a molecule in the brain responsible for regulating mood. Regular exposure to a light box via light therapy has been a commonly used treatment for SAD for decades, as it might increase serotonin production. However, it is important to discuss this with a physician, as some people may not be able to participate due to certain eye diseases or sensitivity to light caused by medications.
  • Vitamin D – It is common to see a vitamin D deficiency in an individual with SAD due to fewer daylight hours during the winter. Speak with your physician about testing your vitamin D levels and adding vitamin D supplements to potentially improve symptoms.
  • Psychotherapy – Speaking to a mental health professional about your symptoms may help you learn how to better manage them. Cognitive behavioral therapy – a type of talk therapy – targets changing patterns of thinking or behavior and is commonly used to treat SAD and other forms of depression.
  • Antidepressants – It may be the case that you need medication to supplement the loss of serotonin during the winter. Common medications used to treat SAD include serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs). Talk to your physician about your symptoms to see if medication is the best course of treatment for you.

To learn more about depression and find free resources, visit the National Institute of Mental Health‘s website. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please call or text 988 to speak with someone who can help.

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