Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression associated with changes in the seasons – it happens at about the same time every year. Most people inflicted with SAD experience symptoms during the fall and winter, which saps their energy and leaves them feeling moody.

Depression is less common during spring and early summer due to SAD. SAD can also be treated with medications, light therapy (phototherapy) and psychotherapy.

Those feelings aren’t simply the result of the “winter blues” or funk that you somehow have to get over on your own. To stay motivated throughout the entire year, you should keep your mood stable.

What causes seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

No one knows exactly the cause of seasonal depression. People who have a tendency to get it may be triggered by a lack of sunlight. Here are some theories:

  • Biological clock change: Biological clocks adjust when a person receives less sunlight. The clock controls sleep, mood and hormones. People who experience a change in it may find it difficult to regulate their moods.
  • Brain chemical imbalance: Neurotransmitters conduct nerve signals in the brain. Chemicals associated with happiness include serotonin. Those who are at risk of SAD may already have reduced activity of serotonin. The lack of sun in the winter can worsen the situation since sunlight helps regulate serotonin. This can lead to mood swings as serotonin levels drop.
  • Vitamin D deficit: Vitamin D boosts serotonin production as well. Since sunlight is necessary to produce vitamin D, a lack of sunlight during the winter may cause vitamin D deficiency. This may affect mood and serotonin production.
  • Melatonin boost: Melatonin has a sleep-regulating effect. Melatonin may be overproduced by some individuals due to a lack of sunlight. This could lead to them feeling drowsy and tired.
  • Negative thoughts: The winter causes stress, anxiety and negative thoughts for people with SAD. Negative thoughts aren’t known to cause seasonal depression, but they may be associated with it.

Read: Work Depression

Is anyone at risk for seasonal depression?

Seasonal depression is more common in young women. It’s also more common in people who:

  • Suffer from another mood disorder, such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.
  • Have a relative who suffers from other mental health problems.
  • Live at high latitudes (further north of the equator), such as Alaskans and New Englanders.
  • Live in cloudy environment.

There are also other mental conditions that may be present in people with seasonal affective disorder, including:

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

An individual with SAD suffers from a type of depression, not a distinct illness. The following are some signs of depression that may accompany seasonal affective disorder:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings for carbohydrates and weight gain
  • A lack of energy and extreme fatigue
  • Hopelessness or feelings of worthlessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Irritability
  • Limbs feeling heavy
  • Retraction from usual activities, such as social gatherings
  • Sleeping more
  • Death or suicide thoughts

SAD sufferers may experience:

  • Agitation and restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite and weight
  • Violent episodes
  • Trouble sleeping

Read: Internet Addiction Disorder

How is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) diagnosed?

You should not attempt to diagnose SAD on your own if you have symptoms. Consult a healthcare provider to get an accurate diagnosis. It could be that you have an underlying physical condition that is creating your depression. SAD is sometimes part of a broader mental health issue.

A psychiatrist or psychologist may be able to help. The mental health professionals discuss the symptoms with you. You are diagnosed with seasonal depression or another mood disorder based on the pattern of your symptoms. The presence of SAD may be determined by filling out a questionnaire.

Is there a test I need to diagnose seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

SAD cannot be diagnosed by blood tests or scans. If you have symptoms similar to those described above, your doctor may still recommend testing.

What are the criteria for the diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

SAD may be diagnosed by your healthcare provider if you have:

An episode of depression occurs more frequently during a particular season than during the remainder of the year.

Read: COVID-19 and Depression

What is the treatment for seasonal affective disorder?

You can discuss treatment options with your provider. It may be necessary to use a range of treatments, including:

  • Phototherapy: Special lamps can provide bright light therapy for SAD.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is also an effective therapy for SAD. CBT has been found to have the longest-lasting effects of all approaches to treatment.
  • Antidepressant medication: Providers may prescribe depression medications alone or with light therapy.
  • Spending time outdoors: Exposure to sunlight can alleviate depression symptoms. Make the most of the daytime. Make your workspace and home more bright.
  • Take vitamin D: Vitamin D supplements can improve symptoms.

What is the effect of light therapy?

A special lamp is required for phototherapy or light therapy. A plastic screen blocks ultraviolet rays on the white fluorescent tubes. They have about 20 times the brightness of traditional indoor lighting. They emit 10,000 lux of light.

Be careful when using phototherapy as it can be dangerous. While you read, eat, or do other activities, place the lamp about two or three feet away.

When should I use light therapy?

You may find it more effective at a certain time. Some people find that morning light therapy is more effective. It may also cause insomnia later in the day if used later. Doctors recommend using 10,000 lux every morning for 15 to 30 minutes.

Read: How to Get Out of a Depressive Episode

What is the timeframe for light therapy?

SAD sufferers typically see improvement within two to four days after using a lamp. Full benefits usually occur after about two weeks.

What is the recommended duration of light therapy?

Light therapy is usually recommended for the entire winter. Once you stop the light therapy, the symptoms of SAD may return. It is possible for you to keep using the therapy throughout the season.

Is light therapy safe?

Light therapy is generally considered safe and well-tolerated. However, it may not be suitable for people who:

  • Have diabetes or retinopathies. People with diabetes and retinal conditions may be at risk of damaging their retina, the back of their eyes.
  • Take some medications. You may become more sensitive to sunlight if you take certain antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medicines. This can make light therapy potentially harmful.
  • Have bipolar disorder. It can lead to hypomania, mania, uncontrollable mood rises, and excessive energy levels. Bipolar patients who use light therapy require medical supervision.

Are there any side effects of light therapy?

You might experience:

Read: Melancholic Depression

Is it possible to prevent seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

The first episode may not be preventable. You can take steps to prevent seasonal depression from recurring once your provider has diagnosed you with it:

  • Use your light box: If you feel SAD symptoms in the fall, start using light therapy then.
  • Get out: Enjoy the outdoors regardless of whether it’s sunny or cloudy. Natural light can boost your mood.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet: Stick to nutritious foods despite your body’s desire for sweet and starchy foods. You can get the energy you need from a healthy diet that is rich in vitamins and minerals.
  • Exercise: Exercise every day for 30 minutes.
  • See friends: Engage in regular activities and social circles. You may find support from them this winter.
  • Find help: Talk to someone who is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. SAD can be very effectively treated by cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Consider medications: You may want to speak with your physician about taking an antidepressant. If your symptoms persist after other treatments or are severe, you may need medications. It is possible to prevent episodes of SAD by taking medication before they begin.

You may benefit from early treatment as a preventive measure, so check with your healthcare provider.


Its outlook is positive. There are treatments available. Symptom relief can be achieved by getting the right diagnosis and treatment combination. Find out which treatment works best for you by talking to your healthcare provider.

Will SAD return?

Seasonal affective disorder can affect people every year for those who are prone to it. The symptoms can be prevented or reduced by taking steps beforehand.

Read: Endogenous Depression

What is the best time to go to the emergency room?

If you or someone you love has suicidal thoughts, seek help. You can contact your healthcare provider, go to the ER, dial 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255. People in emotional distress or suicidal crisis can get free, confidential support from this national network of crisis centers. Support is available around the clock.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

When you have seasonal affective disorder, ask:

  • What is the best treatment for me?
  • What can I do to prevent episodes of depression?
  • Do light therapies work?
  • Do antidepressants work?
  • What is the most appropriate time to begin treatment?
  • When should I stop taking them?
  • How can I improve my symptoms by eating (or avoiding) certain foods?
  • Are there any other ways I can feel better?

Is it possible to get summer depression?

SAD is sometimes called “summer depression,” which occurs in the late spring or early summer and ends in the fall for some people.

Read: Teen Depression

Bottom line

Seasonal affective disorder refers to a type of depression that occurs every year during a particular season, typically during the winter. It can cause a feeling of hopelessness and a lack of energy. Fortunately, seasonal depression can be treated. Speak with your doctor. A special lamp could be recommended. Such lamps produce bright light to alleviate symptoms. Medicines that combat depression can also be of assistance. If you have experienced seasonal depression before, discuss treatment with your provider before you feel symptoms.

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