Seasonal affective disorder and ways to help cope

If you experience the different seasons where you live, it can be a beautiful display of nature. Warm, sunny summers, colorful fall leaves, glistening white snow and a green rebirth during the spring. While these seasonal shifts may be a nice sight for the eyes, weather changes can affect our mood.

It’s common to feel gloomy when the days get shorter (and in some areas when it’s dark by 4:30 p.m.). However, if these mood changes are significant, it may be seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Read on to learn about SAD and ways to help combat those winter blues.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that comes with seasonal changes. It usually happens around the same time every year and goes away within 4–5 months. You might be most familiar with winter-pattern SAD (or seasonal winter depression).

In most cases, SAD symptoms typically start around late fall or early winter. They tend to go away during spring and summer when longer bouts of sunlight return. However, there is a less common type of seasonal depression with a summer-pattern, which happens during spring and summer months. If you experience symptoms of severe seasonal mood changes for at least 2 consecutive winters (or another season), you may have a case of SAD.1,2,3

What causes seasonal affective disorder?

The weather can have some fascinating effects on our mood. Luckily, Mother Nature has given us a powerful source of vitality — the sun. Seasonal affective disorder can be traced back to less sunlight.1,2

  • Low serotonin. When fall and winter roll around the reduced level of sunlight may lower your serotonin. Sunlight helps your body maintain healthy serotonin levels. So, with less rays to support this natural mood-booster, you may notice feeling sad or irritable.
  • A lack of vitamin D. Vitamin D also helps support your body’s serotine levels. While you may be getting vitamin D from foods, your body creates vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. Having less sunlight during the day, may increase symptoms of SAD.
  • More melatonin. This hormone helps regulate your sleep patterns and mood. Your body makes more melatonin when it’s dark. So, those shorter, darker days may throw off your melatonin levels.

What are signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Signs of depression and seasonal affective disorder can be very similar. It’s important to pay attention to the changes in your mood. In general, you may notice symptoms commonly seen with depression, like feeling hopeless, losing interest in activities, having low energy, or feeling sad or “empty.” This might make it challenging to know if what you’re feeling is SAD or something more.

It may help to know there can be certain signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder that are specific to the season.1

Winter-pattern SAD symptoms

  • Oversleeping
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal

Summer-pattern SAD symptoms

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Low appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Restlessness or aggressive behavior

Seasonal affective disorder symptoms should subside after a few months when the season starts to change again. If you’re noticing your symptoms are lasting longer, it may be time to talk to your doctor.

How can I cope with seasonal affective disorder?

Whether you experience winter seasonal affective disorder or seasonal depression another time of year, there are ways to help cope. Simple lifestyle changes may help improve your mood and stabilize your symptoms. Seasonal affective disorder treatments can include things like:3

There are many options for managing seasonal depression. You may find that one lifestyle change or a combination of a few changes works best for you. For some, it may be helpful to consider talking with a doctor about medication for seasonal depression. Whatever you choose, a brighter season can be right around the corner.

Want to talk to a provider about seasonal affective disorder? Find a doctor.