As we head into fall and winter, many people are ready to cozy up and be charmed by the comforts of colder weather. Others, however, feel a significant sadness. If you feel down and isolated around the same time every year—with an urge to hibernate—seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may be to blame. SAD is a seasonal depression that usually occurs in the late fall and winter and impacts 5% of adults in the U.S.1
The good news is there are several effective ways to manage this condition. Read on to find out if you could be suffering from SAD, and learn real ways to cope.
What are the signs of SAD?
SAD is a type of depression that people typically experience during months with less sunlight. Many symptoms of SAD are the same as regular depressive symptoms. They just occur in a seasonal pattern. These include:
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Low energy
- Loss of interest in hobbies or fun activities
- Sleeping problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling agitated
- Thoughts of death or suicide2
Winter SAD, specifically, also include symptoms such as:2
- Weight gain
- Carbohydrate cravings
- Social withdrawal
Scientists haven’t figured out the exact cause of seasonal affective disorder yet. There are several theories, however. Most center around the malfunctioning of brain chemicals, like neurotransmitters and hormones. When these chemicals don’t work as they should, it impacts the body’s natural clock, or circadian rhythm. This can lead to sleep and mood changes.2
While SAD can affect anyone, some people are more at risk than others, including:
- People with a personal or family history of depression. History is an important indicator for seasonal depression. If someone in your immediate family experiences these downward patterns, you are more likely to develop SAD yourself. Your symptoms may also become worse if you have experienced depression or bipolar disorder.
- Women. Women are diagnosed with SAD four times more often than men.2
- Younger adults. Usually, SAD first begins in young adults between 18 and 30 years old.2
- People who live in a colder climate far from the equator with fewer than 12 hours of available daylight. Only 1% of people in Florida experience SAD, while 9% of those in Alaska or New England suffer from it.2
While SAD can last about four to five months before improving with the return of spring, treatments are available through mental health professionals that can improve symptoms and help you enjoy life.1 Often, several treatments are used together. These may include:
- Light therapy. Since wintertime SAD rears its ugly head when we’re experiencing fewer daylight hours, experts believe that symptoms improve with exposure to light. You can also spend more time outdoors in the sunlight—ideally while you are exercising—which can help reduce depressive symptoms. Even sitting next to a window at work can help if you’re not getting enough sunlight. If not completely effective, light therapy may be prescribed.
- Talk therapy. Speaking with a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you rework negative thoughts into more positive ones. By talking with a trusted support professional, you can also start adding more joy-seeking activities to your life and resolve past difficulties that may resurface with SAD symptoms.
- Medication or supplements. For people who repeatedly experience SAD, antidepressants may help. You’ll need to talk to a psychiatrist about which one may be right for you. Your doctor also may suggest vitamin D supplements. These interventions are recommended on a case-by-case basis.
Can you prevent SAD?
While seasonal affective disorder may not always be able to be prevented, there are things you can do each year to ensure you’re in the best place heading into the months with less daylight. These include:
- Get outside. Whether you’re being active or just enjoying the sun, being outside during daylight hours is one of the best ways to nourish both your mind and body.
- Eat well. Speaking of nourishment, eating a healthy diet—more fruits and vegetables, less sugar and processed foods—goes a long way. There’s a strong link between food and mood.
- Focus on self-care activities. Carving out time for yourself and doing things you enjoy is key.
- Spend time with friends and family. Make plans and stay connected to your community as much as possible.
Being proactive and taking care of yourself as you head into the fall and winter season can help keep serious depression at bay. Are you curious about therapy or wondering if it’s right for you? Take this short quiz to find out.
Updated November 8, 2022