Key Takeaways

  • People living with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) experience a drop in mood when the seasons change. This mood change is typically more extreme than the average case of the “winter blues.”
  • While anyone can develop SAD, it tends to affect people living in areas with harsh winters. However, people living in warmer climates can develop SAD too.
  • Treatment for SAD usually involves a combination of self-care and lifestyle changes, light therapy, medication, and talk therapy.

If you live in a climate where the winter months bring cold temperatures and little sunlight, you’re probably no stranger to the “winter blues.” The dark, chilly months might make you want to stay inside, and you might not feel as motivated as you do in other seasons. This shift in mood is a typical response to lower levels of sunlight and vitamin D

For some people, winter is a time of severe depression that is much more debilitating than the average case of the “winter blues.” People living with a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) experience an acute drop in mood when the seasons change. For most people with SAD, this shift occurs in the fall and winter. It’s extreme enough that it makes it difficult to function. But fortunately, with the right support, you can learn to manage your mood and motivation during the darkest months of the year.

Self-care strategies for managing SAD

While there are times when it’s best to seek professional help for SAD, there are also some things you can do on your own to manage your symptoms

  1. Experiment with light therapy. If you can’t access natural sunlight, exposing yourself to a specific type of light indoors can help. 
  2. Get moving. Try to work in some movement whenever you can. If it’s too cold to be outside, consider doing some yoga or walking on a treadmill at home or at the gym.
  3. Prioritize nutrition. While you might be craving carbohydrates, try to make room on your plate for fruits and vegetables too.
  4. Have patience. SAD symptoms typically do not resolve overnight. So remember to have patience with yourself as you work to improve your mood.
  5. Make time for connection. Sometimes, SAD can make you feel like avoiding contact with other people. But spending time with friends and loved ones can help you feel less alone.
  6. Avoid alcohol and other depressants. Be mindful of your intake of any substance that could make your mood worse.
  7. Set realistic goals. Chances are that if you’re dealing with symptoms of SAD, you won’t get to every item on your to-do list each day. Remember that this loss of motivation won’t last forever, and try to be gentle with yourself. 
  8. Practice mindfulness. When you’re feeling stressed or sad, mindfulness can help. Try a simple breathing exercise to calm your body and quiet your mind. Just inhale slowly, pause, then exhale slowly. Repeat this until you feel better.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) symptoms

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which some people call “seasonal depression,” is a pattern of declining mood that occurs at specific times of the year. Most people living with SAD experience symptoms when the weather begins to cool and the days become shorter. Then, almost like clockwork, things begin to improve as the weather warms and the days get longer. 

While on the surface it can look a lot like a case of the “winter blues,” SAD is a serious mental health condition that can take a toll on your health. If you or someone you care about is showing any of the following signs of SAD, it might be time to consider seeking professional help. The symptoms of SAD include:

  • Feeling sad or unmotivated most of the day, almost every day
  • No longer being interested in activities you used to enjoy
  • Feeling fatigued and sluggish
  • Frequently oversleeping
  • Craving carbohydrates and/or overeating to the point of unwanted weight gain
  • Having trouble focusing on tasks
  • Feeling worthless or hopeless
  • Having thoughts of self-harm or not wanting to be alive

Again, most people experience SAD during the fall and winter months, so it tends to affect people living in colder climates. For example, people living in Canada might be more likely to develop SAD than people living in Florida. While rare, it is possible to experience SAD in the spring and earlier summer or in warmer climates. This less common presentation of the condition typically causes slightly different symptoms than the more common winter version. These symptoms can include:

  • Trouble falling and/or staying sleeping (insomnia)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Increase in anxiety and agitation
  • Increase in irritability

Seasonal depression risk factors and potential causes

While anyone can experience SAD, the following risk factors might make you more susceptible to developing the conditions.

  • Living in a far-north geographical area with harsh winters 
  • Having a co-occurring mental health condition such as major depression, bipolar II disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, anxiety disorders, panic disorders, etc.
  • Having a close relative (like a parent or sibling) who also struggles with SAD or another mental health condition, especially depression or schizophrenia

While we need more research to better understand the cause of SAD, scientists have identified a few factors that might lead you to develop symptoms, including:

  • Having a lower level of the brain chemical serotonin, which affects your mood and emotions
  • Not  getting enough vitamin D from sunlight or the food you eat 
  • Having higher levels of melatonin, which affects your sleep-wake cycle
  • Having negative or anxious thoughts about the months when your SAD is most likely to occur

Treatment for SAD

In addition to the self-care strategies mentioned above, there are many treatment options available to help you manage symptoms of SAD. For example, some people take medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) seasonally to reduce their SAD symptoms. Your doctor or psychiatrist can help you decide whether that’s the right option for you. 

In addition, many people find relief from SAD through therapy. One of the main types of therapy that can target symptoms of SAD and other forms of depression is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can reduce your SAD symptoms by helping you identify and replace negative thought patterns. One study found that CBT was more effective at reducing seasonal depression than light therapy alone. But what’s most important is that you find the combination of support options that are right for you.

Read What’s the difference between a psychiatric nurse practitioner and a psychiatrist?

Find support for seasonal affective disorder with Rula

If you or someone you care about is experiencing seasonal depression or SAD, know that you’re not alone and help is available. At Rula, we know that it can be hard to find the motivation to seek support when depression strikes. But our therapist-matching platform is designed to take the struggle out of finding the right therapist for your needs. 

In just a few seconds, we can connect you with a provider who specializes in treating SAD and other mood disorders, and we’ll ensure that they take your insurance. And say goodbye to long waitlists! With our extensive network of therapists, you can begin receiving care as early as this week from the comfort of your home. 

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