Seasonal Affective Disorder: What Is It? How Can We Cope With It?

Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW
Edited by Joe DeNoon

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression, also known as seasonal depression or winter depression. People who struggle with SAD experience mood changes and symptoms just like depression, but usually it occurs during the fall and winter months when there is not as much sunlight. Their symptoms also tend to then improve during the spring months. In the United States for example, SAD is most difficult during the months of January and February. SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance that is brought to the surface by shorter daylight hours and is more common in people living far from the equator. While less common, there is a small population of people that can experience symptoms in the summer versus the winter months. The important distinction to keep in mind is, while many of us get the winter blues because there is less sun, people who are diagnosed with SAD experience symptoms that are distressing and interfere with daily functioning. 

Common symptoms of SAD include: 

  • Fatigue (even with too much sleep) 
  • Weight gain/changes in appetite, associated with overeating and craving carbs
  • Feeling sad/depressed mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you previously enjoyed
  • Changes in sleep (usually sleep too much)
  • Increase in restlessness
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

These symptoms can begin at any age, but typically start when a person is between the ages of 18 and 30. 

If you begin experiencing this for the first time, these symptoms can be distressing, but remember you are not alone. Around 5% of adults in the US experience SAD and typically experience the symptoms for around 40% of the year. 

Luckily, there are also many ways to treat SAD. Treatment can include light therapy, antidepressant medication, talk therapy, or a combination of the above. I personally recommend a combination, but everyone’s preferences are different. I will not talk about medication because that is not my expertise, but if you are interested in this type of treatment reach out to your primary care doctor or psychiatrist. 

Light therapy is a type of therapy where the client sits in front of a light therapy box that has a very bright light that mimics outdoor light. This type of therapy usually requires 20 minutes or more each day, typically in the morning during the winter months. Interestingly, this is actually what people that work in places with limited daylight hours or no daylight hours use to get their version of sunlight. 

The most effective type of talk therapy to treat SAD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Most therapists have at least some training in CBT because it is one of the most evidence-based interventions for treatment of depression and anxiety disorders. CBT combines cognitive and behavior therapy to focus on mood and thoughts, as well as actions and behaviors. This modality of therapy helps address negative thought patterns such as hopelessness, sadness, or guilt, and connects behavioral responses to those patterns. When they are connected, you talk about how to change both the thought pattern and behavioral response. What this would look like for SAD is talking about the negative thoughts you have during the winter, how they affect your actions, and then using skills taught in therapy to change them. These skills include learning to control and change distorted thoughts and reactions, assessing external situations and emotional behavior, practicing self-talk that is accurate and more balanced, as well as teaching self-evaluation to reflect and respond in more appropriate ways. 

In addition to the above treatment, there are little things that we can do everyday to decrease symptoms of SAD. One way to help us during the winter is savoring the sunlight. This is one of the main factors in SAD, so when you are able to be in the sunlight, get all you can.

Exercising is another activity we can put in our daily routine, but it can be hard to motivate yourself to move! Sticking to a routine is so beneficial, but when it gets dark, our bodies struggle to stick to a routine. However, if we can stick to them, routines are so helpful in keeping us regulated from day to day and provide stability when things get hard with our emotions. 

If you feel that you struggle with SAD, I encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional to be able to get the support you need during this fall and winter season! 


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