Don’t Feel SAD, It’s Caused by Seasonal Affective Disorder

Sad Asian woman sitting in her living room.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depressive disorder with seasonal patterns. (Image: Martinmark via Dreamstime)

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a term for major depressive disorder (MDD) with seasonal patterns. It’s a psychological condition that results in depression, often provoked by seasonal change.  

Seasonal affective disorder is usually experienced in the winter and occurs more often in women and young adults. It is normal to feel more energetic and upbeat in the summer, and in turn, it is also normal to feel more lethargic in the winter. However, seasonal affective disorder is when the winter weather affects your mood so much that you feel depressed. 

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Symptoms of SAD 

Physical systems: Often joint pain or stomach problems. 

Behavioral problems: extremes of mood and short periods of overactivity in spring and autumn. 

Social problems: avoiding family and friends, irritability, inability to handle stress, feeling emotionally numb, and loss of libido. 

It is often reported that when experiencing SAD, you may feel more sleepy during the day than usual. People with SAD have also reported cravings for food high in carbohydrates. 

Sleepy woman yawning at the breakfast table in her kitchen.
Those experiencing SAD may feel more sleepy during the day than usual and have cravings for food high in carbohydrates. (Image: Dean Bertoncelj via Dreamstime)

The exact causes of seasonal affective disorder are unclear, but it likely stems from winter’s lack of bright light. This is said to cause a biochemical imbalance in the brain, as some people need a lot more light than others for their bodies to function correctly. 

When light hits the back of our eyes, messages are sent to our brain, which controls sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood, and activity. So when the levels of light exposure are low, these functions tend to slow down. 

SAD is more common in people living far from the equator, with fewer daylight hours in the winter. It is estimated that approximately 5 percent of adults in the U.S. experience seasonal affective disorder, and it is said to last for roughly 40 percent of the year. 

Reduced daylight also affects your production of serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone that influences your sleep, mood, and appetite. Lower levels of serotonin production are regularly linked with depression. 

For some people, increased exposure to sunlight can help improve symptoms of SAD. Ways to achieve this can include spending more time outside in the sun or arranging your home or office to expose yourself to a window during the day. 

Man with a content expression on his face sits on a sofa next to a window with the sun shining on him.
For some people, increased exposure to sunlight can help improve symptoms of SAD. (Image: Tawanlubfah via Dreamstime)

Too much exposure to UV light from the sun can also increase skin cancer risks, so be sure to be mindful of how much time you are exposed. Like with most things in our lives, all things work best when done in moderation.

Living with seasonal affective disorder can be difficult, but some things can make life easier. These include: 

Using a lightbox 

Some people find it helpful to use a lightbox. A lightbox is a special lamp that mimics natural light. 

Planning for difficult times 

Prepare yourself mentally and physically and draft out action plans for when things feel overwhelming before actually reaching the point of burnout. 

Staying active

Physical activities boost your self-esteem and assist with concentration. 

In October 2021, Everyday Health published 14 Ways To Ease Seasonal Depression. People with SAD often have trouble sleeping at night and getting up in the morning. Maintaining a regular schedule improves sleep, which can help alleviate symptoms of seasonal depression. 

Taking a winter vacation to warmer climates can also help alleviate the symptoms of SAD. Even a short break from your daily routine in a sunny place can be helpful with winter depression. 

If travel plans are currently sidelined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, consider planning a “staycation” instead. Take time off from work and find ways to experience typical vacation activities within your own home and community.

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