July 13, 2024

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder – commonly called SAD and winter depression – is a mental illness that causes its victims to experience depressive symptoms only during Winter or Summer.  Also referred to as seasonal depression, SAD affects approximately 6% of the American population.  Roughly 14% of the American population experiences a less severe form of SAD known as Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder; both forms of SAD are most common in areas farthest from the equator.

While SAD is officially listed as an added description to major depressive episodes rather than as its own separate disorder, those who suffer from SAD are acutely aware of the differences.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

There are two basic types of Seasonal Affective Disorders as well as a separate set of symptoms pertaining to those with Bipolar Disorder.  Fall and Winter SAD is by far the most common type of seasonal depression, but SAD can affect a smaller group of people in the summer months as well.

Symptoms of Fall and Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder


  • Decreased energy levels and concentration
  • Increased desire for solitude and sleep
  • An increase in appetite and weight gain
  • Fatigue, anxiety, and hopelessness
  • A heaviness in the arms or legs may be a physical symptom of Winter SAD.

Symptoms of Spring and Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder


  • Anxiety, irritation, and agitation during the summer months
  • Weight loss and poor appetite
  • Trouble sleeping and a higher sex drive
  • Those who experience Summer SAD may be more likely to commit suicide.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder in Conjunction with Bipolar Depression


  • A persistently elevated mood during the summer months may be a symptom of a SAD-induced mania.
  • Hyperactivity and agitation are other symptoms that those with Bipolar Depression may be experiencing SAD.
  • A disproportional amount of enthusiasm over an occurrence may be a sign of Bipolar-induced SAD.
  • Rapid thought and speech patterns are another sign of mania or hypomania.

Causes of Seasonal Depression

While the exact biological reasons for seasonal depression is not known experts theorize the following causes of seasonal depression:


  • The reduced level of sunlight during the fall and winter months may lead to a disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm, messing up an individual’s body clock and increasing depression levels.
  • Reduced sunlight can also cause a drop in a brain transmitter known as serotonin that helps boosts a person’s mood.
  • Melatonin levels may also be disrupted by the change in seasons, upsetting the natural hormonal balance in the body and disrupting sleep patterns and moods of individuals.

Risk Factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder


  • Having a close relative with seasonal depression increases the odds that an individual will eventually develop SAD.
  • Living far away from the equator increases the risk for developing Seasonal Affective Disorder due to the decrease in sunlight during the winter months.
  • Being female increases a person’s risk of developing Seasonal Affective Disorder as women are more susceptible to SAD than men (although the men who do contract SAD generally experience more intense symptoms than do women).
  • Already having Major Depression or Bipolar Disorder increases the risk of developing seasonal affective disorder.
  • People between the ages of 15-55 have a higher risk of experiencing SAD than the rest of the population, although the chances of getting SAD decrease with age.

Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Doctors frequently employ several different methods of treatment in an attempt to lessen the effects of SAD, the most popular of which involves light therapy.  Bright light treatment and dawn therapy are the two premiere methods of light therapy and are often effective means of treating it.

seasonal affective disorder

Bright Light Treatment

Bright light treatment involves sitting in front of a light box for 30 minutes a day or longer and observing light that mimics the outdoors.  This treatment is usually effective after as little as four days and is cheaper than taking antidepressants.

Dawn Simulation Light Therapy

Dawn simulation actually begins when a person is still asleep; a light gradually brightens over the course of the morning, mimicking the sunrise.

Sunlight Exposure

Simple exposure to real sunlight is also an effective Seasonal Affective Disorder treatment  for those suffering from winter depression and is the cheapest option available.

Prescription Medication

Those who do not respond favorably to light therapy may be prescribed an antidepressant instead.  Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, and other such popular depression medications are often effective treatments for more severe cases of seasonal depression.  When doctors have already diagnosed SAD in a patient, the physician might recommend that the patient begin treatment before the start of a seasonal change in order to reduce the severity of the next Seasonal Affective Disorder depressive episode.


Psychotherapy may also help Seasonal Affective Disorder victims.  While sunlight deprivation and chemical imbalance can cause SAD, patients may also have psychological issues that they associate with a particular season that increases negative feelings in regards to that season.  If a patient’s mother died during the winter, then the patient may need to work through that grief with a counselor or psychologist before the Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms will pass.

Alternative Medical Options for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Herbs and Supplements

Those who wish to try alternative options for treating SAD may desire to take supplements like St.  John’s Wort and Melatonin.  Omega-3 fatty acids are present in nuts, fish, and grains and are generally healthy; SAMe is a synthetic form of a naturally-occurring chemical approved for depression treatment in Europe but not in the United States.

Mind and Body Therapy

Mind-body therapies such as yoga, meditation, and guided imagery are also popular alternative treatment options, as are acupuncture and massage therapy.  The medical value of these treatments is disputed, but many patients find such treatments to offer some relief.

Self-motivated Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatments

While professional medical assistance is important for dealing with SAD, patients can do things on their own to lessen the symptoms.

Exercise boosts a person’s energy level, helps alleviate depression, relieves stress and anxiety, and lifts a person’s self-esteem.  Being outdoors can also help as this allows a person to soak up some sunshine and gets a person out in the fresh air.

Patients with winter depression should also attempt to make their homes sunnier and brighter by opening window blinds, adding skylights to the ceiling, and trimming the tree branches that block sunlight from entering through windows.


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