woman with seasonal affectiveness disorder sits at computer

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Seasonal affective disorder: Therapy and treatment options

  • Seasonal Affective Disorder, or seasonal depression, is a form of depression that occurs during certain seasons, typically fall and winter, due to changes in sunlight exposure and biological rhythms.
  • Light therapy, antidepressants, exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy are proven treatments for SAD, helping to alleviate symptoms and improve mood.
  • While symptoms are similar to other forms of depression, SAD is unique due to its seasonal pattern, commonly triggered by shorter daylight hours in fall and winter.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – also known as seasonal depression – is a reoccurring depression sparked by seasonal changes. Experiencing a mental health condition can be overwhelming and affect your daily routine. Seasonal depression can also lead to deeper psychological and physical symptoms if left untreated. 

That’s why it’s important to address mental health struggles sooner rather than later. Fortunately, you're not alone, and there are treatment options available to help improve your mood. 

Fall and winter SAD

Most people with SAD experience symptoms in the fall and winter months. Wintertime sadness is more common in northern states such as Minnesota because of shorter days and less sunlight. While SAD and the “winter blues” have similar symptoms, there’s a difference between the two. Seasonal depression is a chronic condition that can last for months, while feeling the “winter blues” is typically short-term as your biological clock adjusts. 

Common SAD symptoms include: 

  • feeling depressed or sad
  • difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  • low energy or fatigue, even after getting enough sleep
  • difficulty concentrating
  • a change in appetite

Difference between normal depression and SAD 

Symptoms of depression and seasonal affective disorder are nearly identical. The difference between the two conditions is when the symptoms occur. Seasonal depression typically happens in the late fall and winter, while other forms of depression may happen at any time of year. Your health care provider may recommend similar treatment options for both conditions.

Causes and diagnosis of SAD

The direct cause of seasonal affective disorder is unknown. However, mood changes are commonly brought on by a change in your biological clock, which synchronizes your sleep-wake cycle. Changes in your biological clock can be caused by: 

  • A lack of sunlight exposure, temperature shifts or less social interaction
  • The production of melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep. Your body releases more melatonin when it’s dark outside.
  • A drop in serotonin, a chemical in your body that can boost your mood. Exposure to sunlight may help regulate the levels of serotonin in your brain. 


Seasonal affective disorder can be diagnosed by a mental health provider. They may do a mental health exam to learn more about your medical history and how long you’ve experienced depression symptoms. Your provider may do a blood test to look for medical conditions known to cause depression symptoms, such as anemia (low number of red blood cells) and thyroid issues. Treatment options will be recommended following your diagnosis. 

Treatment options for SAD 

Treatment options for seasonal affective disorder include light therapy, medications, exercise and psychotherapy. Your health care provider may recommend a combination of treatment options depending on your situation. Contact your provider and pause treatment if your seasonal depression worsens.  

Light therapy

Light therapy is a treatment involving exposure to artificial sunlight. Exposure to sunlight can potentially increase the production of serotonin, a mood-improving chemical found in your body. The benefits of light therapy, at a certain intensity and duration, have been shown to be helpful in treating SAD. Speak with your doctor about the best light box for you and how it's used.

Medications

Your health care provider may recommend antidepressants to treat your seasonal depression. Sometimes antidepressants are only recommended during certain times of the year when you’re more prone to experiencing the condition. Your body may take several weeks to experience the benefits of antidepressants. 

Exercise

Regular exercise is a natural way to improve SAD symptoms. Your workouts can help release the endorphins in your brain, which can improve your mood, reduce pain and increase feelings of well-being. Whether you’re a novice or an athlete, there are a variety of exercises you can add to your daily routine.

You may benefit from outdoor activities, such as walking, during the winter months. You'll get more light exposure by spending time outside, even on a cloudy day. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy, is a common behavioral approach known to improve emotional health. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to improve symptoms of SAD. The time it takes to improve one's mental health varies. 

Vitamin D

Many people with seasonal depression – and those who live in regions with less sunlight – have a vitamin D deficiency. However, there's no medical evidence directly proving that a lack of vitamin D causes SAD. Your health care provider may recommend a blood test to measure your vitamin D levels and create a plan right for you. 

Mental health care focused on you

If you think you have seasonal affective disorder or another mental health condition, consider seeing a mental health provider when you're ready. They'll get to know you and create a personalized treatment plan with the right mental health programs and services for your needs. Schedule a virtual visit or see a mental health provider at a clinic near you.

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