How to Deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder

As sunlight decreases into fall and winter months and temperatures drop, many people experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a relatively overlooked condition that affects people mostly in the winter months of the year. SAD is a form of depression that will normally last for 4-5 months of the year, usually in the fall and winter, in a predictable cycle. Read on for more about seasonal affective disorder and how to treat it.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is described by Depression Research and Treatment as “recurrent major depressive order with a seasonal pattern usually beginning in the fall and continuing into winter months.” SAD can affect some people in the summer months, but 9 out of 10 people with the disorder experience it in the winter. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes SAD, but with the qualifier that the person must have symptoms of seasonal depression for at least two years in a row, and symptoms must begin, end, and reoccur in specific seasons of the year.

People who suffer from seasonal affective disorder sometimes have trouble producing serotonin while at the same time overproducing melatonin during the affected months. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that balances people’s moods and induces pleasure, while melatonin is a hormone that stimulates sleepiness. The combination of these changes can mess with someone’s circadian rhythm, meaning their 24-hour “body clock” will be off. Most people with SAD tend to struggle with this because, with the darkness that comes with shorter days, they end up sleepy, lacking in energy, and depressed. Darkness can also lower the amount of Vitamin D a person gets. Vitamin D is believed to play a role in serotonin activity.

Research shows that SAD occurs more often in women than men and usually in people who live in the farthest reaches of the hemisphere where daylight has the most drastic change between seasons. Millions of people suffer from SAD, though many don’t even know they have it. SAD is frequently diagnosed concurrently with other mental health disorders like ADHD, eating disorders, anxiety, panic disorders, depressive disorders, and bipolar disorders. There is some evidence that SAD may run in families.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Symptoms can vary from complete sadness and depression to simple lethargy and decreased interest in usual activities during people’s affected months. To be diagnosed with SAD, one must have the following symptoms:

  • Symptoms of major depression:
    • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
    • Losing interest in activities one once enjoyed
    • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
    • Having problems with sleep
    • Feeling sluggish or agitated
    • Having low energy
    • Feeling hopeless or worthless.
    • Having difficulty concentrating
    • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Winter-pattern specific SAD symptoms may include:
    • Oversleeping
    • Overeating
    • Weight gain
    • Social withdrawal
  • Summer-pattern specific SAD may include:
    • Trouble sleeping
    • Poor appetite, leading to weight loss
    • Restlessness and agitation
    • Anxiety
    • Episodes of violent behavior

To be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, one must have all of the following:

  • Symptoms of major depression, like those listed above.
  • Depressive episodes must occur during specific seasons, like winter or summer.
  • These episodes must be more frequent than other depressive episodes the person may have had in their lifetime.

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder is treatable, and there are several ways SAD symptoms can be alleviated for those who have anxiety over the months their SAD may kick into effect. A few ways doctors treat SAD include:

  • Light therapy. This has been a common treatment for SAD since the 1980s. Light therapy is done by exposing the client to a bright light that mimics natural sunlight every day to make up for the diminished light in the winter months. The client will sit in front of a UV-filtering lightbox for 30-45 minutes every day.
  • Psychotherapy, or talk therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most commonly practiced talk therapy. Other forms may include group or family therapy if other symptoms/concerns warrant it. When researchers compared cognitive-behavioral therapy to light therapy, both methods proved equally effective.
  • Medications. Certain antidepressants can help with SAD, but the client may have to try a few medications to make sure they are getting it right. Medication can be tricky if it’s not needed year-round. If a client is worried about side effects, they should talk with their doctor about their concerns when choosing a medication.
  • Vitamin D. Many people with SAD often have Vitamin D deficiency because of decreased sunlight exposure. Taking a Vitamin D supplement may help.

Seasonal affective disorder is just one of many mental health issues that can be caused or greatly exacerbated by complex trauma or attachment issues. Trauma, especially during adolescence, can lead to disruptive and maladaptive behaviors, leaving teens vulnerable to emotional dysregulation. While Havenwood Academy may not be the place for teens with seasonal affective disorder as their primary diagnosis, our caring and knowledgeable staff can provide help for teens with significant trauma and co-occurring disorders. At Havenwood, we help young women overcome complex trauma by using multifaceted treatment modalities. Our state-of-the-art approach to therapy empowers young women to overcome emotional and psychological distress that has disrupted their lives and embrace a healthy, trauma-free life. The goal of our long-term treatment facility is to give teens skills for success and healing. If you or a young woman you love is in need of treatment for trauma or attachment issues, call Havenwood Academy today at (435) 586-2500.


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