Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder
By: Erin Oberman, Masters Level Intern
As the season changes and daylight starts to diminish, you may start to notice significant changes in your mood and behaviors. While this experience is common, it is important to monitor your mood and get proper support you need. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects roughly 5% of adults in the United States and is more prevalent to those who live in areas with cold and dark winters. SAD is a form of major depressive disorder, characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern and can interfere with daily function. SAD affects all ages, but typically is seen between ages 18 – 30 and is more common among women than men.
Some common symptoms of SAD include loss of energy, hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness or prolonged nighttime sleep), overeating, weight gain and carbohydrate cravings. Symptoms also overlap with major depression disorder consisting of feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest in activities, change in sleep, fatigue (despite increased sleep), and difficulty making decisions. Symptoms can vary from mild to severe and in more severe cases thoughts of death or suicide may be present.
There are several ways SAD can be treated effectively, including talk therapy, light therapy, medication, or a combination of these methods.
Research shows Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can effectively improve the symptoms of SAD. CBT can help individuals cope with negative feelings about wintertime and shift their perspective into proactive responses that are beneficial. A trained mental health professional can diagnose and discuss different therapy options that are best suited for you and your condition.
Light Therapy / Increase Time Outdoors
Light therapy involves sitting in front of a daylight lamp or box the emits non-harmful UV rays (10,000 LUX), typically in the morning for about 20-30 minutes per day. Some people may see improvements within 1 or 2 weeks of beginning treatment. If you are anticipating symptoms, some may begin light therapy in early fall to prevent symptoms from arising. Alternatively, exposure to natural sunlight can help improve SAD symptoms. Spending more time outside or arranging home furniture so you are exposed to a window can help combat symptoms of SAD. Research shows exposure to sunlight for even 10 minutes can have a positive effect on your mood. Going for a walk is a great way to incorporate more sunlight and physical activity into your routine, which can help regulate your mood and increase energy.
Medication (only as directed)
In some cases, medication may be recommended for individuals struggling with SAD. Because SAD is like other types of depression, there are disturbances in serotonin levels that antidepressant medications can combat. Many people with SAD often have a vitamin D deficiency and have seen improvements with supplements to help improve their symptoms. All medications can have side effects, therefore, people with SAD should discuss what is best for them with their doctor or trained medical professional.
If you feel your depression is severe or if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, consult a doctor immediately or seek help at the closest emergency room.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-TALK (8255).
American Psychiatric Association. (2017). Major Depressive Disorder with seasonal pattern. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (pp. 160–188). essay.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Seasonal affective disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder.