Symptoms and Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression is a mental health condition experienced by around 5% of people in the US. SAD features low mood and is a type of depression. Uniquely, SAD is not a year-round mental health condition. Instead, SAD only affects people during certain seasons. These seasons typically correspond to times during which there is less sunlight.

SAD can be extremely confusing to navigate since it does not affect your year-round. Learn more about SAD, its causes and symptoms, and how we can help you recover from this condition.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

When the seasons change, it is common to get the winter blues. You may be stuck indoors more often, and there is less sunlight to cheer you up. The winter blues are not the same as SAD. Psychologists consider SAD as a form of depression. This type of depression can interfere with your day-to-day activities and cause significant distress. 

To receive a diagnosis of SAD, you must display the following:

  • Depression symptoms
  • Seasonal depressive symptoms that occur at least two years in a row
  • Depressive symptoms that occur more frequently during a particular season or seasons (fall and winter are most common)

Your provider will ask you about your symptoms to receive a SAD diagnosis. They will want to rule out other potential causes of your symptoms (e.g., medications, another mood disorder) before diagnosing you with SAD.

SAD Causes

SAD is a unique form of depression because it only occurs seasonally. People with SAD usually experience depression during the fall and winter. Many researchers believe that lack of sun may lead to lower serotonin and dopamine levels. Lower levels of these “happy” chemicals lead to SAD symptoms.

Vitamin D deficiencies, internal alarm clock changes, and melatonin overproduction could all be to blame for throwing your happy chemicals out of balance.

SAD Risk Factors

People who experience symptoms of depression or who have a depressive disorder diagnosis are at a higher risk for SAD. The same is true of people with mood disorders like bipolar disorder. Location is a risk factor for SAD. The further you live from the equator, the less sun you receive during colder months, which increases your risk of developing seasonal depression. Finally, women develop SAD at higher rates than men. However, researchers are unsure why this could mean women are at a higher risk for SAD than men.

What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal depression is a type of major depression. As such, SAD symptoms share much in common with the symptoms of depression. Look out for the following signs if you think you have SAD:

  • Feeling sad, empty, or hopeless
  • Crying a lot, often for no reason
  • Feeling angry, irritable, or frustrated
  • Getting either too much or too little sleep
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Losing weight unexpectedly or due to low appetite
  • Gaining weight unexpectedly or due to increased food cravings
  • Feeling anxious, agitated, or restless
  • Thinking, speaking, or moving sluggishly
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Unexplained aches and/or pain
  • Constantly thinking about past failures
  • Losing pleasure in activities you once enjoyed

Suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide are also potential signs of depression. If you experience thoughts of harming yourself or others, it is critical that you seek help immediately.

Seasonal Affective Disorder vs. Major Depressive Disorder

SAD and major depressive disorder (MDD) have many symptoms in common. However, psychologists make a distinction between these two types of depression. MDD can occur at any time. On the other hand, SAD symptoms only occur during a certain time of the year. Once that season is over, people with SAD do not experience additional depressive symptoms.

How Is SAD Treated?

SAD treatment depends on the individual and the provider. In general, the best treatment combines medication and therapy. Antidepressants are common medications used to treat depressive disorders like SAD. SSRIs, SNRIs, TCAs, and MAOIs, are common antidepressants you may get prescribed for SAD. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common type of therapy for the treatment of SAD. It utilizes talk therapy strategies to help individuals identify negative thought patterns and learn how to change them.

How Can Seasonal Affective Disorder Be Treated Without Medication?

Drugs and therapy are not the only ways to relieve SAD symptoms. One of the top treatments for seasonal depression is entirely non-invasive. This treatment is known as light therapy. Light therapy requires individuals with SAD to sit under a blue light for 30 minutes to an hour daily. This activity can help increase vitamin D levels, restoring serotonin and dopamine levels. Other treatments for SAD that you can do at home include getting more time outdoors, increasing your consumption of food high in vitamin D, or taking vitamin D supplements.

Do You Need Help Overcoming SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs seasonally. It includes the hallmark symptoms of depression, but the good news is that getting more sunlight may be enough to reverse these symptoms.

Are you looking for support with your SAD recovery journey? Comprehensive Wellness Centers in Lantana, FL, have inpatient and outpatient programs for people with depressive conditions like SAD. Learn more about our admissions process today to finally get the support you need to recover.

Medically Reviewed: December 29, 2022

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer | CWC Recovery Staff

Clinical Team

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All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Content on this page has been reviewed by CWC Medical Staff for accuracy.


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

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