What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

January 19, 2022   •  Posted in: 

Have you been asking yourself questions like “I feel sad for no reason?” or “Why am I so tired all the time?” Have these questions started popping up alongside a sudden change in the weather?

If you said “yes” to any of the above, a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (or SAD for short) could be the culprit. Read on to learn more about this type of depression, its symptoms, and what you can do to manage it.


What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Also known as seasonal depression or the “winter blues,” seasonal affective disorder is a unique form of depression. It typically begins and ends around the same time each year and, as the name suggests, is related to seasonal changes.

Most people who struggle with seasonal affective disorder notice that their symptoms begin in the fall and last through winter, getting better when the weather starts to warm up and the days start to lengthen once again.

In about 10 percent of people with seasonal affective disorder, symptoms occur instead during the spring and summer, then get better in the fall and winter.[1]


Seasonal Affective Disorder Stats

Every year in the United States, approximately 5 percent of the population struggles with seasonal depression. Both men and women suffer from this type of depression, but it is more prevalent in women (4 out of 5 people with SAD are women).

Symptoms of seasonal depression can occur at any age. However, it most commonly begins to occur in people between 20 and 30 years of age.

The duration of seasonal depression symptoms varies quite a bit from person to person. For most, though, experts estimate that symptoms are present for about 40 percent of the year.

Many people who struggle with seasonal affective disorder struggle every year when the seasons begin to change. However, between 30 and 50 percent of individuals affected by this condition do not show symptoms during consecutive winters.


Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

In those with seasonal affective disorder, symptoms tend to start fairly mild. Then, as the seasons continue (and, in most cases, as the weather gets colder), they become more severe.

The following are some of the most frequently cited symptoms of seasonal affective disorder:

  • Feelings of depression that last most of the day and occur nearly every day
  • A loss of interest in activities that you once enjoyed
  • Frequently having low energy
  • Frequently having trouble sleeping
  • Persistent changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feelings of sluggishness or agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating at school or work
  • Frequent feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide

It’s important to note that not everyone who struggles with SAD will experience all of these symptoms at once. You do not need to check every single box listed above before you decide your seasonal depression is “serious enough” for you to seek help.

Fall and Winter SAD

Anyone who is struggling with seasonal affective disorder may experience some (or all) of the symptoms mentioned above. However, certain symptoms are more frequently associated with fall and winter SAD, including those listed below:

  • Fatigue
  • Frequently oversleeping
  • Increased hunger and cravings (including, in particular, cravings for foods that are high in carbohydrates)
  • Weight gain

Spring and Summer SAD

Other symptoms are more specific to spring or summer-onset seasonal affective disorder, including the following:

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Frequently feeling anxious or agitated
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss


What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

As is the case with other types of mental health conditions, there’s not one direct cause behind seasonal affective disorder. Many different issues can contribute to the symptoms of this type of depression, but the following are some of the most well-known:

1. Circadian Rhythm Changes

Circadian rhythms are the 24-hour sleep-wake cycles that govern the body’s internal clock. They play a significant role in sleep, appetite, and mood regulation. When the seasons change, your internal clock can be thrown off, which can contribute to, or worsen, the symptoms of seasonal depression.

2. Serotonin Production Changes

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in mood regulation. During the winter, due in part to decreases in sunlight, serotonin production may decrease. This, in turn, can lead to a depressed mood and other symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, including changes in appetite, memory impairments, and a decreased sex drive.

3. Melatonin Production Changes

Melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycles. When it’s dark outside, the brain produces higher levels of melatonin, and levels taper off during the day in response to sunlight.

When the days get shorter in the winter, you may be more prone to increases in melatonin production, which can lead to fatigue and decreased energy. When the days are longer in the spring and summer, on the other hand, you may not produce enough melatonin, which could lead to insomnia and other symptoms of spring-summer SAD.

4. Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin the body produces naturally in response to sun exposure. In the winter, when sun exposure is harder to come by, it’s natural for vitamin D levels to drop. This can lead to a decrease in serotonin levels, which can cause changes in mood, energy, etc.



Seasonal Affective Disorder Risk Factors

It’s also worth noting that some people might be more prone to seasonal affective disorder based on other factors. The following are some traits that may increase your likelihood of experiencing symptoms of SAD:

  • Family History: If you have family members who suffer from seasonal depression, you’re more likely to suffer from it yourself.
  • History of Mental Health Challenges: Seasonal depression is more common among those who struggle with other mental health conditions, including major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
  • Location: Living in a cloudy place without a lot of direct sunlight, such as Alaska, Washington, or New England, can also increase SAD risk.


When to See a Doctor About Seasonal Affective Disorder

To receive a clinical diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder, you will need to have experienced at least some of the symptoms mentioned in the previous section for two or more consecutive years.

However, if your symptoms are beginning to feel overwhelming or are having an adverse effect on your life, don’t hesitate to seek help. It’s especially important to contact a doctor if your symptoms are affecting your sleep or appetite, or if you are feeling hopeless or experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Remember, it’s better to address your symptoms early (before they start to cause serious problems in your life) than it is to push them aside and hope they go away.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Diagnosis

In addition to asking about how long you’ve experienced symptoms, your physician will conduct several other tests to help you determine whether you’re struggling with seasonal depression or another type of mental health disorder.

The following are some of the steps they may go through to come up with a diagnosis:

  • Physical Exam and Blood Tests: Sometimes, depression symptoms can stem from an underlying health condition, such as a poorly functioning thyroid.
  • Psychological Evaluation: This includes answering a series of questions about your symptoms, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.
  • Health History: They may ask about your history of mental health challenges, as well as your family history.

Your doctor may also consult the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM-5), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association, to evaluate your symptoms based on the established criteria for seasonal depression.


Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment Options

Seasonal affective disorder can be incredibly debilitating. Fortunately, though, is it also treatable. A doctor or mental health professional may recommend the following as potential treatment options for your symptoms:

1. Increased Time Outdoors

Spending time outside each day and exposing yourself to direct sunlight can help to boost your vitamin D levels. This, in turn, can elevate your mood and help you fight off symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

For those who cannot go outside (perhaps because temperatures are too low or the weather doesn’t permit), increasing natural light inside the home by opening the blinds or curtains can also help.

2. Vitamin D Supplementation

Supplementing with vitamin D can also help to raise levels and increase serotonin production, which can improve mild symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. For those with more severe symptoms, this solution may be more effective combined with other treatment options.

3. Phototherapy

Phototherapy is another good alternative for those who cannot get a lot of direct sunlight exposure each day.

Phototherapy involves a special device (sometimes referred to as a light box) that exposes you to bright light each day and is meant to mimic natural light from the sun. Regular light box use (ideally, at the start of the day) can help to alter brain chemical levels and improve your mood.

4. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that aims to challenge and change thoughts and behaviors while also improving emotional regulation. Cognitive-behavioral therapists can help you to develop coping strategies to target symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and make them more manageable.

5. Medication

In addition to the treatments mentioned above, antidepressant medications can also be useful in balancing brain chemicals and improving symptoms of SAD. Because it often takes a few weeks for antidepressants to become effective, many people see the best results when they start taking them before they experience any symptoms of SAD.


How to Prevent Seasonal Depression?

For some people, seasonal depression occurs every year without fail. In some cases, though, you can prevent your symptoms from coming back, or you can at least lessen them, by taking proper precautions before seasonal changes take place.

Here are some specific steps you may want to take to reduce your chances of dealing with seasonal affective disorder:

1. Start Phototherapy Early

Similar to the point made above about antidepressants, phototherapy can also be more effective if you start it before SAD symptoms set in. Consider incorporating it into your routine a few weeks before the season starts to change so you can begin to improve your brain’s neurotransmitter balance early.

2. Spend Time Outdoors Each Day

Whenever possible, make sure you’re spending time outdoors each day, too. Regular time outdoors with direct sunlight exposure can make a big difference when it comes to boosting vitamin D and serotonin levels.

3. Eat a Healthy Diet

A healthy diet can also make a difference in preventing seasonal depression. Limiting processed food, sugar, and alcohol while incorporating more nutrient-dense foods (fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, etc.) can improve your brain chemistry, increase your energy levels, and improve your mood.

4. Exercise Regularly

Exercise produces endorphins. Endorphins are feel-good chemical messengers that help to improve your mood. Aim to exercise at least a few times per week to keep the endorphins flowing. This will also help you to establish a healthy habit before winter sets in.

5. Socialize Regularly

Spending time with friends and loved ones can also produce endorphins and reduce feelings of stress, sadness, and anxiety. Aim to socialize regularly, especially in the period leading up to a seasonal change, to improve your mood as you transition into a more difficult season.

6. Consult Your Therapist

If you know that you tend to experience a shift in your mental health along with seasonal changes, get in front of it by talking to a therapist early. Let them know what kinds of symptoms you typically experience and work with them to create healthy coping mechanisms that can make the impending seasonal change more bearable.


Get Help for Seasonal Affective Disorder Today

Do you suspect that you’re struggling with symptoms of seasonal affective disorder? Do you want to work with a professional to learn to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life?

If so, we’re here to help at The Center • A Place of HOPE. As a Top Ten Facility for Depression Treatment, our team has the knowledge and experience necessary to help you make positive changes and improve your mental health.

Reach us today through our online form or give us a call at 1-888-747-5592. We’re happy to answer all of your questions and help you begin your healing journey right away.

[1] https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/seasonal-affective-disorder/

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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