Living with Chronic Pain

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?


What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, is a type of depression that affects individuals, as a result of the changing of the seasons. For those who experience SAD, it will generally begin and end at the same time of year.

The most recognized form of SAD is winter-onset seasonal affective disorder. It’s often referred to as the “Winter Blues”. This form typically affects individuals starting in late fall and into winter months. There is another form of SAD, summer-onset seasonal affective disorder. This affects individuals in the spring and summer months. Regardless of the type of seasonal affective disorder, symptoms will generally start out as mild and progress to more severe, as the seasons progress.

SAD is more likely to occur in younger adults and in females more often than in males. Individuals who are at a higher risk for developing SAD include: those who have a family history of depression, those who have a personal history of major depression or bipolar depression, and those who live further from the equator (winter-onset).

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • Anxiety Changes in Appetite
  • Changes in Sleep Pattern
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling Depressed or Sad
  • Increased Irritability
  • Loss of Interest in Activities that Once Brought Pleasure
  • Social Withdrawal
  • Weight Gain or Loss
  • Thoughts of Suicide or Self-Harm

Symptoms specific to Winter-Onset SAD include: oversleeping, weight gain, changes in appetite including eating more carbohydrates, and low energy.

Symptoms specific to Summer-Onset SAD include: insomnia, weight loss, poor appetite, agitation, and anxiety. Individuals should not diagnose themselves with seasonal affective disorder. A diagnosis can be made by your primary care doctor, psychiatrist, social worker, physician assistant, or clinical psychologist.

How can SAD be treated?

Seasonal affective disorder can be treated using many of the same options that are used for treating depression. Medications and therapy are valid options. For individuals dealing with Winter-Onset SAD, light therapy is considered the first line treatment.

Light therapy, or phototherapy, uses white fluorescent light to mimic natural outdoor light. Individuals sit in front of a light box for a set period of time, 15 or 30 minutes, within the first hour of waking up. It is not recommended to engage in light therapy, too late in the day, as it may cause insomnia. Individuals should begin to show improvement within a couple of days and should notice the full effect of phototherapy within 2 weeks.

Phototherapy is not advised for individuals who have diabetes, eye problems, or who are taking certain medications, as the light could cause damage to the retina. Possible side-effects of phototherapy may include: fatigue, headaches, insomnia or eye strain. If these side-effects are an issue, be sure to inform the doctor who prescribed the light therapy.

Prevention Tips

  • Avoid Alcohol.
  • Eat a Well Balanced Diet.
  • Exercise Regularly.
  • Engage in Meditation or Guided Imagery.
  • Get a Good Night’s Sleep.
  • Make an Effort to Socialize.
  • Practice Stress Management.
  • Spend More Time Outside.
  • Try Yoga or Tai Chi.

Important Note:

If symptoms of seasonal affective disorder become severe and lead to suicidal ideations or other thoughts of self harm, please seek out immediate support.

If there is an immediate risk of injury, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline call:
1-800-273-8255. For online crisis support, visit

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