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Sunny Resilience: Conquering Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder:

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition where individuals undergo periodic shifts in mood, often coinciding with seasonal changes. While many may feel a bit "down" during shorter days in fall and winter, some experience more significant alterations in mood, cognition, and behavior. If you observe substantial changes in your emotional well-being corresponding to seasonal shifts, you might be dealing with SAD. Typically, symptoms emerge in late fall or early winter (winter-pattern SAD) but can manifest in spring and summer (summer-pattern SAD), albeit less commonly.


What signs and symptoms typically accompany Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression marked by a recurring seasonal pattern, lasting about 4-5 months annually. It shares common depressive symptoms and includes disorder-specific signs, varying between winter-pattern and summer-pattern SAD. General depression symptoms involve persistent sad mood, feelings of hopelessness, irritability, loss of interest, changes in sleep and appetite, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, physical discomfort, and thoughts of suicide. Winter-pattern SAD may bring oversleeping, overeating (especially carbs), and social withdrawal, while summer-pattern SAD can involve insomnia, weight loss, restlessness, anxiety, and aggressive behavior. It's important to distinguish SAD from "holiday blues," as SAD is linked to daylight changes rather than specific calendar events.

Demystifying SAD: Development Factors and Diagnosis

Diagnosing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) involves consulting with a healthcare provider or mental health specialist to discuss symptoms. This may include completing a questionnaire to assess if the criteria for SAD are met. Diagnosis criteria include experiencing depression or season-specific symptoms for at least two consecutive years, with more frequent episodes during the specific season compared to other times. SAD typically begins in young adulthood, affecting more women than men and being more prevalent in regions with shorter winter daylight hours. Those with depression, bipolar disorder (especially bipolar II), and other mental health conditions may be at higher risk. SAD can also have a familial tendency, particularly in individuals with relatives experiencing other mental illnesses.

SAD Causes & Treatments: Unraveling the Seasonal Puzzle

The exact cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is still being investigated, with more emphasis on winter-pattern SAD due to its prevalence. Research suggests reduced serotonin levels and sunlight's impact on serotonin-regulating molecules as factors in winter-pattern SAD. Vitamin D deficiency may worsen the condition by affecting serotonin activity. Altered melatonin levels also play a role, with excess melatonin in winter-pattern SAD leading to oversleeping and reduced melatonin in summer-pattern SAD impacting sleep quality. Disruptions in serotonin and melatonin affect the body's daily rhythm, causing mood and sleep changes. Negative thoughts about seasonal limitations may also contribute to SAD. Treatments for SAD include light therapy and vitamin D for winter-pattern, while psychotherapy and antidepressants are used for both winter- and summer-pattern SAD, with no specific treatments for the latter.

Light Therapy and Psychotherapy for SAD: Illuminating Treatments

Light Therapy:

Light therapy, a staple since the 1980s for winter-pattern SAD, involves exposure to a bright light box (10,000 lux) daily for 30−45 minutes, typically in the morning. The light box, much brighter than indoor light, is safe for most individuals, filtering out UV light. Certain eye conditions or light-sensitive medications may necessitate alternative treatments or medical supervision.


Psychotherapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for SAD (CBT-SAD), is effective in teaching new thinking patterns and modifying behaviors contributing to depression. CBT-SAD, conducted in two weekly group sessions for six weeks, focuses on replacing negative seasonal thoughts with positive ones. Behavioral activation in CBT-SAD helps schedule engaging activities, countering the winter or summer loss of interest. Studies comparing CBT-SAD and light therapy show both are effective, with light therapy providing slightly faster relief, though CBT-SAD may have longer-lasting positive effects.

Antidepressant Medication and SAD Prevention

Antidepressant Medication:

Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are effective for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) either as standalone treatments or in conjunction with talk therapy. These medications alter brain chemicals that play a role in mood and stress regulation. Bupropion, an extended-release antidepressant, has received FDA approval for preventing seasonal depressive episodes.

Vitamin D and Supplements:

Supplements, particularly for individuals with winter-pattern SAD and vitamin D deficiency, present mixed findings in studies comparing them to light therapy. While some research suggests their effectiveness is comparable to light therapy, other studies indicate no significant impact. Consulting a healthcare provider is paramount due to potential interactions with medications. The intricate relationship between vitamin D and SAD underscores the importance of professional guidance to ensure safe and effective supplementation.

SAD Prevention:

Recognizing the predictability of SAD onset, proactive treatment initiation before fall (for winter-pattern) or spring (for summer-pattern) can contribute to symptom prevention or reduction. While limited studies explore preventive measures, collaborating with a healthcare provider to create personalized treatment plans facilitates informed decisions regarding timing and intervention options.

Clinical Trials:

Clinical trials, vital for advancing medical knowledge, serve as avenues to explore novel treatments and enhance overall healthcare. Individuals participate in these trials for various reasons, contributing to scientific understanding and gaining access to cutting-edge treatments. NIMH conducts trials nationally, providing opportunities for involvement. Before considering participation, it is essential to engage in a thorough discussion with a healthcare provider regarding the potential benefits, risks, and suitability for the individual.



Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a recurrent mood disorder characterized by periodic shifts in mood, cognition, and behavior, typically manifesting in late fall or early winter (winter-pattern SAD) and, less commonly, in spring and summer (summer-pattern SAD). Diagnosing SAD involves consulting a healthcare provider, with criteria including experiencing depression or season-specific symptoms for at least two consecutive years. Factors contributing to SAD, particularly winter-pattern SAD, include reduced serotonin levels, sunlight's impact on serotonin-regulating molecules, and vitamin D deficiency. Treatments encompass light therapy, psychotherapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for SAD, and antidepressants. While vitamin D supplementation's effectiveness varies, proactive treatment initiation before the anticipated onset may aid in symptom prevention or reduction. Clinical trials, crucial for medical advancement, offer opportunities for individuals to access cutting-edge treatments and contribute to scientific understanding, with NIMH conducting trials nationally. Thorough discussions with healthcare providers about benefits, risks, and suitability are essential for potential participants.



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