Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Understanding Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Onset

Source: Pixabay

When September arrives, the seasons change in many places around the world. For those living in such places, daylight becomes shorter and darkness arrives early.

During this time, a great number of people fall into a predictable set of symptoms.

They slow down.

They have a tough time waking up in the morning.

They can’t fall asleep at night.

Their energy levels decrease and a full-on fatigue takes hold.

Thinking and concentrating suffer.

Feelings of sadness, even despair, take center stage.

These experiences are known as Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Onset - otherwise more informally known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD symptoms include many of the same symptoms as major depression. The difference though, is that these symptoms resolve each spring and tend to occur again in late fall. SAD negatively impacts productivity at work, school and home - and even in social relationships.

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Mental Health America reports that reduced level of sunlight in the fall and winter months greatly affect a person with SAD. Studies show that individuals with SAD have genetic predispositions for serotonin transporter protein issues when the sun hangs lower in the sky.

Another neurobiological cause is related to melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland. This hormone, which can affect sleep patterns and mood, is produced at increased levels in the dark. And individuals who have SAD appear to have higher levels of melatonin than those who do not experience SAD. Furthermore, Melatonin regulates our circadian rhythm, also know as our "biological clock", and when overproduction occurs in the darker months, children and adults "feel out of sorts."

Statistics on Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a pattern of depressive symptoms that occur and then disappear with the changing of the seasons. SAD is sometimes called "Winter Depression" or "Winter Blues".

  • SAD affects millions worldwide, primarily occurring in areas of higher latitudes from the equator.
  • SAD affects women and children more than men.
  • Awareness of this mental condition has existed for more than 150 years, but it was only recognized as a disorder in the early 1980s.
  • As mentioned earlier, clinical diagnosis for SAD is Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Onset.
  • Individuals with SAD report sleeping an average of 2.5 hours more in winter than in the summer. The general population sleeps 0.7 hours more in the winter.

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

  1. Get a medical evaluation. Many illnesses can look like SAD (hypoglycemia, hypothyroidism, anemia, etc.) Make sure you aren't struggling with a other chronic or treatable medical condition.
  2. Learn about your circadian rhythm. This is the internal biochemical cycle we all have that regulates our body with respect to sleeping, feeding and well-being. Circadian rhythms are greatly affected by sunlight. Individuals with SAD have an ultra-sensitive body clock that gets thrown off when exposed to less sunlight. To help reset your body clock, sunshine or artificial light are used.
  3. Get more sun. Consider spending more time in the sun by being outdoors or sitting in a pool of sunlight indoors. Consider buying an artificial light for Light Therapy if you can’t get natural sunshine.
  4. Aromatherapy. Invite essential oils or candles into your space to boost mood. Studies show peppermint, lemon, bergamot and cinnamon increase concentration and lift mood.
  5. Keep a set sleep schedule. Keeping a healthy sleep schedule will reduce aspects of SAD. Make it standard practice NOT to sleep in too much, nap too much or go to bed too early.
  6. Eat Healthy Foods. SAD sufferers tend to crave sweets and starches, so be mindful to keep protein in your diet as a balance.
  7. Psychotherapy: If using these holistic measures don't ease some of your SAD symptoms, you may need to seek guidance from a mental health professional. Search for a clinician who specializes in mood disorders.
  8. Psychopharmacology: For some individuals, using antidepressant during seasonal patterns helps alleviate depressive symptoms. Consult with psychiatrists and nurse practitioners who specialize in mood disorders for the best results.
  9. Check the calendar: If you're still feeling sadness, despair, irritability and difficulty concentrating once spring arrives and the daylight hours are longer, you may not be experiencing SAD. Instead, your chronic persistent depression may actually be another type of depressive disorder. Talk with your physician about these issues or seek a mental health professional to evaluate your symptoms further.
  10. Depression is a treatable disorder. It's important to know that while depressive disorders like SAD can be serious, they are treatable.
More from Deborah Serani Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today