Get a handle on your condition.

Just about everyone feels a bit more energetic, happier even, on a sunny day. Whether it’s the warmth of the sun, the brightness of the light, the chirping of the birds, or the flowers in the garden, spring and summer seem to sparkle. There is a lightness and a brightness that’s almost contagious. And for many people, that sparkle seeps into their bones, their moods, their very beings, buoying their spirits. But then, when along comes late fall and winter and the days begin to shorten, their moods may begin to falter.

This incremental seasonal change in mental health, mindset, or well-being is near-universal to varying degrees. When it is more than just a yearly craving for mac and cheese and cozy movie nights, it’s often described as having winter blues. Many people experience some degree of winter blues, which impact facets of their general mood, energy level, and overall happiness. However, when it’s more extreme, these feelings can veer into a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Much more than a temporarily sluggish mood, this mental health condition is a persistent, often debilitating depression that takes hold during winter.

In this comprehensive guide, learn more about seasonal affective disorder, how to distinguish this mental health condition from its much milder cousin, the winter blues, how to get help, and other ways to cope with SAD until the sun returns.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a mental health condition that tends to occur during the fall and winter months. It may also be seasonal depression. People with SAD often experience debilitatingly low energy and mood during these darker months, but typically have relief from these symptoms during the sunnier times of year.

Woman at home

Research is unclear on exactly what causes this mental health condition. However, this type of depression is thought to be triggered by sustained reduced daily exposure to sunlight, resulting in changes in various brain chemicals like serotonin (which helps regulate mood) and melatonin (which helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle). 

Seasonal Affective Disorder vs. Winter Blues

Shorter days coupled with drearier, colder weather brings on the winter blues for many. Like hibernating animals, many people soon feel an almost instinctual urge to slow down, to nest, to burrow, to go to bed early. The pep in their step may feel a bit lost. Comfort food, staying in, sitting on the couch watching movies, and generally withdrawing socially often holds renewed appeal. This state is commonly called winter blues.

For some people, winter blues becomes more ingrained, causing a deeper, even debilitating drop in mood, energy, and spirit. When this experience takes over a person’s life, it may be classified as a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder. It’s important to know if what you are experiencing is a manageable, seasonal slowdown or if your mental health is truly struggling. If so, getting help for your mental health condition can really help.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Symptoms of SAD (and their intensity) may vary among those with this condition. However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with this mental health disorder typically experience a combination of the following symptoms on a seasonal basis:

  • Anxiety
  • Consistently feeling depressed for much or all of the day
  • Fatigue
  • Having trouble with concentration or completing tasks
  • Hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities or hobbies
  • Low energy or sluggishness
  • Low mood
  • Sleeping too much
  • Social withdrawal
  • Weight gain
weight gain

Winter-Pattern Sad vs. Summer-Pattern Sad

The majority of people with seasonal affective disorder experience the disorder in the darker half of the year. This is called winter-pattern SAD. However, this mental health condition isn’t exclusive to the winter. Some people do have seasonal affective disorder in the summer, a condition called summer-pattern SAD. 

In the case of summer-pattern seasonal affective disorder, symptoms sometimes may also include difficulty sleeping, anxiety, restlessness, reduced appetite, mania and violent behavior. In almost the reverse of winter-pattern SAD, it is believed that for some people too much sun disrupts their melatonin cycle, triggering their depressive symptoms.

Diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you think that what you are experiencing is more than just a temporary dip in your mood and/or your symptoms are interfering with your life, seek help. Your primary care doctor or therapist can diagnose this condition and/or point you to a specialist experienced in treating patients with SAD. 

The health practitioner you work with will ask questions about your symptoms and medical history to determine if what you are experiencing is in fact SAD. It may help to keep a log of your daily emotional state, when your symptoms start and end, as well as their intensity. It can also point to SAD if you notice a pattern in experiencing these symptoms at the same time from year to year.

winter blues

The general criteria for being diagnosed with SAD include having seasonal symptoms of major depression, including those listed above, for at least two consecutive years. Note, however, that not everyone with SAD experiences symptoms every year.

Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder

There are a variety of effective treatments for SAD. These include light therapy, antidepressant medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), talk therapy, and taking vitamin D. Often it’s recommended to try a combination of treatments.

Light therapy involves using a light box to provide exposure to light that mimics sunlight. Additionally, you can aim to try to get outside more in times when the sun is out to boost your daily minutes of sun exposure.

Other Ways to Cope

In addition to any prescribed treatments, there are other things you can do to help you cope. First off, know that millions of people suffer from SAD every year. So, you’re not alone. Also, nothing you did is causing this and it’s not your fault. So, let go of any shame or blame you may be harboring and focus on finding methods that offer comfort and boost your mood instead. Generally, whatever you can do to promote self-care and stress reduction may offer some relief. Ideas to try include eating nutritious meals, getting regular exercise, talking with friends, listening to music, mediation, following a daily schedule, yoga, aromatherapy, massage, and acupuncture. 

Additionally, do what you can to get enough sleep by using healthy sleep hygiene. This includes sleeping in a dark, quiet, uncluttered, cool room and using a repetitive bedtime routine, such as having a cup of tea, taking a bath, reading, and then turning out the lights. 

Man relaxing in bath

Some people also find it helpful to take a trip to a place with a sunnier climate to give their bodies a boost of sunlight. In more extreme cases, others may consider transplanting to a city that offers longer, sunnier winter days, such as moving from Oregon to California or Arizona.

Key Takeaways

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is typically experienced in winter. If you tend to have a significant, life-impacting change in mood and energy in the colder months, you may want to talk to your doctor to see if you have seasonal depression. Getting a diagnosis and treatment can assist you understand what’s going on—and help you get a handle on your condition.