Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – What is it, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – What is it, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Let me ask you some of the questions:

Do you hate winter?

Do cold days make you feel lethargic?

Do you oversleep during gloomy days?

Do you binge eat during winter?

Do you eagerly wait for winter to end soon?

As winter starts, some of us may experience the “winter blues”. Days become shorter, colder, and darker. We may face difficulties waking up on dark mornings and we want to go to bed earlier.

If you have any of the signs mentioned above then you might be suffering from Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) also known as winter depression because the symptoms are usually more severe in the winter.

SAD causes depression even in the spring but it is rare during summer. Summer SAD is the uncommon form of SAD. Summer depression begins in late spring or early summer and ends in fall. Due to shorter nights, longer days and increased heat, people with summer SAD tend to sleep too little.

In this article, we look at the causes, symptoms, risks, and the treatment of SAD.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder(SAD)?

SAD was formally described and named in 1984 by Norman E. Rosenthal and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health

SAD is a type of major depressive disorder. It comes and goes with the season and it typically recurs at the same time of the year. It is a seasonal depression. It is customarily related with winter depression that comes as soon as the fall starts and resolves in springtime. Some people might have summer depression as well with symptoms such as insomnia, decreased appetite and weight loss, and anxiety. 

According to Harvard Medical School, women experience SAD more often than men. SAD also develops in young people more often than in older adults. 

Symptoms of SAD 

Even though Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) has its own name and symptoms but the most of the symptoms of SAD  are similar to the symptoms of depression. The only difference is the Seasonal Affective Disorder happens every year at the same time and symptoms last about 4 to 5 months per year.

Signs and symptoms that people with SAD may experience are listed below: 

Common Symptoms of SAD:

  • Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and worthlessness
  • Stress 
  • Feeling sluggish
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty in making decisions
  • Reduced concentration
  • Reduced interest in activities that once provided pleasure
  • Overeating and possible weight gain
  • Decreased libido
  • Suicidal thoughts

Some people may experience these symptoms in the summer months due to summer depression.  However, most of the people experience it during wintertime.

Spring and Summer SAD Symptoms

  • Insomnia
  • Poor appetite
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation 
  • Weight loss
  • Anxiety

Fall and Winter SAD Symptoms

  • Anxious feelings  
  • Feeling of fatigue, even after a full night’s sleep
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Social withdrawal  (hibernating)
  • Weight gain
  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia)

SAD in people with Bipolar Disorder 

People with bipolar disorder bring severe high and low moods and changes in sleep, energy, thinking, and behavior. People with bipolar disorder in summer and spring may have symptoms of mania,  hypomania, and winter and fall may have symptoms of depression.

Risk factors of SAD

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the main risk factors for SAD are age, sex, distance from the equator (since regions farther to the north and south tend to have shorter days and less sunlight in winter), and a history of depression or other mood disorders.

The obvious factor of Seasonal Affective Disorder is the season itself. Apart from that, there are some of the other risk factors of SAD also.

SAD can be experienced by anyone but the women between 18 and 30 years old and men and women who live farther north have the greatest risks.

SAD occurs more frequently in younger adults than in older adults.

Those with the family history of depression or SAD may have a higher chance of developing this order. 

Other risk factors for SAD are

  • Age
  • Family history 
  • Gender 
  • distance from the equator –  (since regions farther to the north and south tend to have shorter days and less sunlight in winter)
  • Production of melatonin-  melatonin is a hormone that makes people sleepy. The body of the people with SAD may produce it in higher levels.

Causes of SAD

The specific causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder are unknown. Reduction of sunlight and vitamin D production, less serotonin(a brain chemical) production, and availability of food are correlated to causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

  • Production of serotonin : Brain, a Journal of Neurology , has published a research mentioning connection between serotonin (a chemical that nerve cells in the brain produce) levels and wintertime SAD. Serotonin affects one’s  mood, appetite and sleep. A lack of sunlight may lead to decrease in serotonin levels. As the serotonin level decreases, symptoms of depression increase and that may lead to greater risk of having SAD.
  • Production of melatonin: Brain produces the hormone known as melatonin  when it’s dark. It helps to sleep. During the day, sunlight triggers the brain to stop the production of melatonin. Body may produce too much melatonin during the short days and long nights which may make people feel drowsy and low on energy.
  • Circadian rhythms: 

Body’s internal clock responds to changes between light and dark to regulate sleep, mood, and appetite. Internal clock might be disrupted on longer nights and shorter days which may make people feel groggy, sleepy and disoriented.

Treatment of SAD

 A true Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) diagnosis requires the presence of at least some of the symptoms during a specific time of year for at least two years.

If a person is suffering from mild seasonal depression then they can follow the simple tips mentioned below:

Mind-body connection

Examples of mind-body techniques to cope with SAD include:

  • Music or art therapy
  • Meditation
  • Relaxation techniques such as yoga
  • Guided imagery

Things you can try to work on

  • Taking a really nice bath
  • Going to sleep at waking up at the same time
  • Practicing yoga and meditation
  • Exercising regularly
  • Going out with friends and family
  •  Eating well
  • Staying active
  • Going out 
  • Taking sunbath 
  • Going on a walk

However, if a person is suffering from severe seasonal depression then they need to consult a doctor. 

  • They may recommend light therapy or antidepressants depending on the severity of the symptoms present.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy, has been proven to be effective in the treatment of this disorder. 

“SAD can be debilitating for some people,” says Joyce Corsica, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Rush. “And if you’re suffering from it, it’s important to get help.”

SAD is more than just the winter blues. If you or somebody you know is experiencing the symptoms of SAD, don’t ignore it. Treatment is available so seek professionals help before symptoms get worse. 

16 thoughts on “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – What is it, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

  1. I haven’t hear of this disorder until this. I have some of the symptoms but I think it’s still normal.

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