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Anxiety, Stress & Coping
August 30, 2023
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.)?

Hiba Hamed

Upward view of a tree with red leaves and another with green leaves with sun peaking through

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Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder and Overcoming it's Effects on You

Gray skies, chilly air, less fun in the sun — who doesn’t start to feel down when Fall and Winter come around? 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression related to seasonal changes, beginning and ending at around the same time every year. Most people experience seasonal affective disorder symptoms in the fall and winter months. It’s possible to have seasonal affective disorder in the spring and summer, but the symptom profile is slightly different.

Formerly known as major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns, SAD can be a disabling mental health condition. The good news is it’s highly treatable! 

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of SAD, which may start mild and become more severe as the season progresses, may include:

  • Low energy or feeling tired all the time
  • Feeling sad, listless, or hopeless every day or most days
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Sleeping too much
  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Overeating or weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal ideation

Symptoms specific to Summer-onset Seasonal Affective Disorder may include:

  • Insomnia
  • Poor appetite or weight loss
  • Increased agitation or irritability
  • Increased anxiety

The symptoms of depression and seasonal affective disorder are very similar; distinguishing between them is all about timing.

What causes SAD?

While the specific cause of SAD remains unknown, it’s generally considered to be triggered by changes in the amount of sunlight. Reduced sunlight may affect your body’s internal clock, thus disrupting sleep-wake patterns and a drop in serotonin and dopamine levels.

Serotonin and dopamine are brain chemicals associated with feelings of happiness, calm, focus, concentration, and motivation. Also referred to as “happy chemicals,” a drop in serotonin and/or dopamine levels may trigger depression.

How is seasonal affective disorder treated?

Common treatments for seasonal affective disorder include light therapy, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes.

1. Light therapy

Light therapy is a unique treatment for fall and winter seasonal affective disorder. It involves using a light box with a minimum 10,000 lux brightness for at least 30 minutes daily to counteract the lack of natural daylight that can trigger SAD.

2. Psychotherapy

In addition to light therapy, psychotherapy is an effective treatment for SAD, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT can help you challenge your negative beliefs and thought patterns, improve emotional regulation and develop healthy coping skills if you struggle with seasonal affective disorder.

3. Lifestyle changes

Making a few small changes to your lifestyle can help improve your mood and decrease some symptoms of SAD. These may include:

  • Spending more time outdoors in natural light
  • Developing a healthy sleep routine
  • Eating healthy food rich in vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Exercising, which releases endorphins and other happy chemicals
  • Spending time with pets and petting animals has also been demonstrated to lower blood pressure, which can help you calm down

Timing is everything

While seasonal affective disorder isn’t preventable, timely treatment can help with changes in mood, appetite and energy levels before completely take over. If you experience symptoms for longer than two weeks, we recommend reaching out to one of our mental health professionals to develop a treatment plan.

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