Feeling SAD? Why Seasonal Affective Disorder Is No Joke

Reviewed by Diane Warns, PT


It’s that time of year again. The clocks go back and we gain an hour, but for people like me, that extra hour isn’t worth the fatigue and overall blah-ness that tends to come along with it.

And it’s not that I hate the fall or winter seasons. Because I don’t. I’d honestly choose to live in a four-season location any day over a tropical location that cycles between hot and wet, and hot and dry.

It’s just that it’s really dark. Like, all the time. When I wake up, it’s dark for three hours. Before I go to bed, it’s been dark for nearly six hours already.

I start to really feel the effects come mid- to late fall, but at least I have the chaos of the holidays to distract me from my sense of apathy. Come January, that’s when the winter blues really start to set in.

When I’m at my worst, it amazes me that anyone has the drive to work, cook, exercise, get chores done, socialize, and work toward personal goals in the dead of the winter. In my case, I count myself lucky for making it through yet another day without some aspect of my life completely falling apart.

Winter is fine. But the dark? No thanks. I’d rather hibernate until spring.

Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Even Real?

Have you ever wondered if seasonal affective disorder (a.k.a. SAD) is just some sick trick your mind plays on you for just generally disliking being in the dark all the time? I certainly have.

It turns out that it is indeed a legitimate form of depression. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines it as a major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.

And while negative thought patterns can definitely play a big role in how crabby or down you feel, SAD typically involves more than that. It has a lot to do with the biochemical processes of your brain.

What Causes SAD?

The severity of SAD symptoms can vary from person to person, depending on how vulnerable your genes make you to the disorder, plus where you live in the world.

I know I have “night owl” genes and I live in Canada, which are two big reasons why I tend to experience SAD.

To sum it up, reduced daylight hours and less sunlight during the fall and winter seasons can cause some people’s internal biological clock or circadian rhythm to have trouble adjusting, which in turn contributes to a biochemical imbalance in the brain. 

Both serotonin and melatonin can be affected, which are two hormones that help regulate the body’s daily rhythm in maintaining a normal day-night cycle.

How SAD Can Affect Your Everyday Life

When the nerve cell pathways in the brain that regulate mood don’t work as they should, the result can be a feeling of depression. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms begin in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. 

There’s also a summertime version of SAD that affects people, and although it’s less common, experts believe it’s caused by longer days, increased heat and humidity, and possibly increased susceptibility to allergies.

If you suspect you have SAD, you don’t want to ignore it. Mood swings associated with SAD can become more severe over time, affecting the way a person feels, thinks, and goes about their daily activities.

SAD can cause you to withdraw and isolate yourself from others. It can interfere with your school work or performance at your job. You might turn to alcohol, drugs, or food to try to cope. It can even be a gateway for other mental disorders like anxiety or an eating disorder.

It’s important to recognize the signs of SAD before they start to interfere with your life. Let’s take a look.

Watch Out: Signs and Symptoms of SAD

If you think you may be struggling with SAD, here are some of the signs and symptoms to look out for:

In addition to those who may be more sensitive to changes in light due to their genes, and those who live in regions where the amount of daylight tends to vary a lot depending on the time of the year, research has shown that women are at higher risk of experiencing SAD than men.

It can sometimes take a while to diagnose SAD because it can mimic other conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, an underactive thyroid, low blood sugar, viral illnesses, or other mood disorders.

A licensed therapist can explore your symptoms with you and decide what form of treatment might be best for you.

Beating SAD: What You Can Do

So how do you treat SAD? And what can you do to prevent it from coming back?

Those are tricky questions to answer, because everyone’s experience with SAD can be so different. Some people experience mild symptoms that they can easily treat with some basic lifestyle changes, while others require more specialized treatments—particularly if they have another type of mental health disorder.

In general, these are the three of the most standard treatment methods for SAD:

Light therapy: Light therapy involves exposing the eyes to full-spectrum or natural light for a certain amount of time—either by heading outdoors during daylight hours or by using artificial light. Research has shown that one light therapy session lasting 20 minutes can lead to an immediate improvement in mood.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This typically involves working with a therapist to develop the appropriate skills and strategies needed to cope with mood changes related to SAD. One study found that CBT was actually more effective in treating people with SAD than light therapy.

Medication: Your doctor or therapist is the person to ask about this one. In some cases, SAD may be treated with medications, such as antidepressants.

When It Comes to SAD, Don’t Forget About Your Lifestyle Habits

Last year, I bought a “happy light” off Amazon—basically an at-home device you can use to do your own light therapy. I like to use it for about a half hour first thing in the morning.

In addition to making sure I’m getting enough light in the morning hours to help regulate my mood as well as my circadian rhythm, I try to stay aware of just how important it is to maintain healthy lifestyle habits overall—even if all I want to do is lie on the couch and zone out.

Start small. Aim to just move your body regularly throughout the day rather than committing to a full-body workout. Limit carbs, but don’t restrict yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for staring at glowing screens too much, but try turning them off at least a half hour before going to bed.

It’s not always easy to do these things in the winter months, but it certainly goes a long way. Remember: progress, not perfection.

A happy light and healthy habits are good enough for me, but I know that’s not the case for everyone. If you’re seriously struggling this winter, reach out to a mental health professional to help you get back on track.

Winter comes every year, and for some of us, it’s really, really long. Good mental health shouldn’t be seasonal. You deserve to feel at your best no matter the season.

Elise Burley

Elise Burley is part of the therapist.com editorial team and has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience on a variety health topics. Over the years, she has written for several health-related ecommerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not writing, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.

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