What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

By Stephanie Watson @YourCareE
October 25, 2023
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Have the shorter winter days put you in a dark mood, affecting your life? What is seasonal affective disorder? Here are some tips to relieve the winter doldrums.

The trees are skeletal, the sky has faded into a dismal gray, and for much of the day the sun can barely drag itself above the horizon. As winter settles in and the days grow shorter, many people get a down-in-the-dumps feeling sometimes referred to as the “winter blues.” When the blues won’t let up, day after day, they could signal a more serious, depression-like condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

“The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are exactly the same as non-seasonal depression symptoms, which can include a loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyed activities, excessive fatigue, difficulty concentrating, a significant change in sleep length and thoughts about death or suicide. The only difference with SAD is the seasonal pattern it follows,” psychologist and SAD expert Kelly Rohan, PhD, told the American Psychological Association.

Some people even turn to alcohol or drugs for comfort.

People with SAD tend to hibernate in winter. They load up on carb-heavy comfort foods that make them gain weight, and they struggle to crawl out from under the covers each morning. Those symptoms aren’t concerning when they happen occasionally but, if they don’t let up day after day, they can interfere with your job, relationships, and life.


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What is seasonal affective disorder?

With the change in seasons comes a shift in your natural biological — or circadian — rhythms.

“Some people are more sensitive to these changes,” said Frederick Brown, PhD, former associate professor of psychology and director of the Human Performance Rhythms Laboratory at Penn State University. “It’s assumed to have a genetic component.”

The down mood is thought to stem from a hormone called melatonin, which your body produces just before bedtime to help you sleep. Shorter winter days trigger more melatonin production. Too little of another mood-altering (feel-good) brain chemical, serotonin, might also play a role. 

About 5 percent of the U.S. population lives with SAD symptoms during the winter months. Millions more have the milder winter blues. SAD is more common in women and more likely to affect people who live in northern climates.

If your mood stays dark from December to March, here are a few tips to help you overcome the problem.

Seasonal affective disorder treatment

Because darkness triggers SAD symptoms, light is a good way to fix it. Exposure to light suppresses your brain’s melatonin production. If your symptoms are mild, taking an early morning walk or throwing the shades open may be enough to help.

“Turn on a lot of lights in the morning,” said Brown. “Aim for the amount of light at 8 a.m. on a sunny June day.”

For severe SAD symptoms, experts recommend light therapy — sitting in front of a bright artificial light for at least 30 minutes each morning to reset your body’s normal rhythms and boost your mood. 

Also effective is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a program in which you learn the skills to combat the negativity you feel during winter. Research shows that CBT works as well as light therapy, and it may be easier to stick with.

“Adhering to the light therapy prescription upon waking for 30 minutes to an hour every day for up to five months in dark states can be burdensome,” said University of Vermont psychology professor, Kelly Rohan, PhD. Her research compared the two therapies and found them equally effective for improving symptom severity, but CBT was better at preventing SAD from returning in future seasons. 

Also be careful not to fall into the comfort foods trap. Although you might be craving sugar and carbs, they’ll only drag you down more. Eat foods that boost your energy.

“Skip the sugary donuts and Danish and eat a high protein breakfast, which puts us in gear for the day,” Brown suggests. 


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October 25, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN