Seasonal Affective Disorder

Feeling the doom and gloom of the winter months approaching? Seasonal Affective Disorder is a re-occuring depressive disorder that affects on average about 1% to 2% of the general population, particularly women and young people, during certain months of the year. A milder form of SAD may affect as many as 10 to 20 percent of people. Some people are affected during summer months, though many feel the symptoms of SAD during winter months, hence the street term: “winter blues.” For the sake of this article, we will be focusing solely on the latter, though many of the tips and tricks to dealing with SAD could also be applied to those impacted during other months throughout the year.

Symptoms & Causes:

Though people may have varying experiences related to seasonal affect disorder and at varying degrees, the most common symptoms of SAD include (according to the DSM V):

  • Feelings of hopelessness and sadness

  • Hyperinsomnia or a tendency to oversleep

  • A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods

  • Weight gain

  • A heavy feeling in the arms or legs

  • A drop in energy level

  • Decreased physical activity

  • Fatigue

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Irritability

  • Increased sensitivity to social rejection

  • Avoidance of social situations

  • Thoughts of Suicide

On top of the symptoms listed, feelings of guilt, a loss of interest or pleasure in activities previously enjoyed (including decreased sex drive), ongoing feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, use of drugs or alcohol to cope, changes in sleep patterns, and/or physical aches and pains may also be indicative of SAD.

Though exact causes for seasonal affect disorder are unknown, much of the research points to decreased daylight hours and amount of direct sunlight which impinges on the bodies natural production of certain chemicals that boost mood while also impacting our natural circadian rhythms. Serotonin and melotonin, which regulate sleep, feelings of drowsiness, and mood regulation all shift during winter months with reduced sunlight, adding to feelings of depression during this time.


Here are some tips and tricks to preventing or coping with the symptoms that often accompany seasonal affective disorder:

  1. Get the Vitamin D. Taking supplements in the grey winter months is proven to be somehwat helpful, while getting natural sunlight is most impactful. If you don’t have access to much sun, a blue light can help. For more on lights to treat SAD, click here.

  2. Exercise. Boosting endorphins and mood enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin can really help with the moody blues that come throughout the season (especially if done outside with the combined positive impact of natural light). Specifically doing cardio with a bilateral rhythm, at a pace using both sides of the body alternately, can be super helpful to boost mood.

  3. Reach out to community and socialize. Though many imagine a winter snuggled on the couch, in front of the fire with hot chocolate and a good book in hand, the reality of that image can become isolating and lonely if done repeatedly over time. Don’t be afraid to make plans with friends, go to the holiday party (even if you feel resistant), have a potluck or craft night, go out with someone old or new. Even doing the snuggled up reading session at a cafe or with someone next to you could be more uplifting than alone on the couch. If you feel none of these are possibilities, joining a meet-up or support group, volunteering at the local homeless shelter or for your favorite cause may be a better alternative option.

  4. Be mindful of your nutrition. There may be temptation to eat more foods that cause your sugar levels to spike, whether that’s high-sodium, high-sugar, or high-fat foods and drinks. Cultivating a mindfulness around what you’re taking in, how, and when, can have a great influence on overall mood. If you know you’ll be indulging more at the upcoming holiday parties, perhaps food prepping healthy meals for your work week becomes your balancing act of choice. Maybe it’s hitting the gym, sauna, or steam room to sweat it out after.

  5. Create a daily or weekly practice that’s just for you. Some people find ritual of any kind – meditation or reciting prayer, preparing tea, building fire, cooking, doing face masks, crafting, playing music, going to your religious place of worship, hiking in nature, and/or going to therapy as useful for resetting the system and finding a sense of groundedness. Getting creative with this opens up a whole realm of possibility.

  6. Have a little fun. Whatever brings you joy, makes you laugh, gives you that buzz of excitement, even if it seems long ago that you felt that – go do it. Even a memory of a fun time can uplift the mood and wake up the body. Maybe it’s dancing at a venue to your favorite band/dj or alone in your house, laughing with others or by yourself watching your go-to stand up show, heading on a spontaneous daytime adventure to that place you’ve been hearing about, or just going on a drive while listening to your favorite songs. Incorporating child-like fun into our lives keeps us feeling lighter, even when the sky is grey.

  7. Psychotherapy. Sometimes we need more support in figuring out what’s happening on a deeper internal level to really get the relief we’re looking for. As the holidays approach, some may feel worry about reuniting with families, old wounds resurfacing, the pressure to please, etc. If your seasonal affect disorder is getting to a point where more support could be useful in discovering what’s needed to heal, don’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist in your area. Psychology today offers a large list to peruse through, organized also by location for easier access.

  8. Medication. For those suffering from more severe cases of depression or where none of the above methods seem to help, medication may be in order. Talk to your therapist or get in contact with a professional who can help you find a medication that is right for you in dealing with your symptoms.



Dana Andrews is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist with the Center for Mindful Psychotherapy. She views therapy as a relational, collaborative, and spiritual process that helps people understand how to become the most authentic version of themselves. She works with adults, couples, and children. She helps people work through anxiety, depression, relationship issues, complex trauma, grief, and transitions. Visit her website at to learn more, or reach out via e-mail at to schedule a consultation call.

Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist #110553
Supervised by Renee Beck MFC #21060

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