The ABCs of SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Around this time of year I begin to hear from people who have trouble with what we call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

"I always have trouble this time of year. It's the season. I can't take it."

What distinguishes SAD from regular run-of-the-mill depression is the time of onset, between September and October, when the days become significantly shorter in certain latitudes. The further away from the equator you live, the less sun there is in the winter. Behavioral scientists believe there is a change in brain chemistry in people susceptible to SAD. Something about how serotonin is processed messes up sleep cycles and mood.

Symptoms are:

~ Feeling sad, grumpy, moody, or anxious.
~ Losing interest in your usual activities.
~ Eating more and craving carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta.
~ Gaining weight.
~ Sleeping more and feel drowsy during the daytime.

People with SAD report feeling relief from symptoms around April or May, as the days' sunlight increases.

How is SAD treated?  Best practices for the treatment of SAD includes:

~ Bright light treatment. For this treatment, you sit in front of a "light box" for half an hour or longer, usually in the morning. Light therapy works well for most people with SAD, and it is easy to use. You may start to feel better within a week or so after you start light therapy. But you need to stick with it and use it every day until the season changes. If you don't, your depression could come back.
~ Dawn simulation. For this treatment, a dim light goes on in the morning while you sleep, and it gets brighter over time, like a sunrise.
~ Antidepressants. These medicines can improve the balance of brain chemicals that affect mood. Consult with a board certified psychiatrist.
~ Counseling. Some types of counseling, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can help you learn more about SAD and how to manage your symptoms.

To learn more about SAD read:

WebMD on SAD

About the Winter Blues

Research Updates: Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatments


  • Thank you for writing this. It is so true and I know many people (including myself) who practically go into shock when the season changes over. Just a few weeks ago, when it was both colder and rainier, I holed myself up in my home. I didn’t shower for two days. I didn’t want to go anywhere. And even in the past week I’ve found myself just wanting to eat, and eat, and EAT!!! I’m so glad you listed those symptoms because I was always curious why I craved more foods in the fall.
    Speaking of symptoms, I’ve experienced all but one of them (gaining weight) so far this season. Weekends with lots of sun (like this past weekend in Chicago) are wonderful. Even an uptick in the temps has proven to be a mood lifter.
    Other things I would add for myself to your list would be…
    - Sticking with all my regular routines, including working out.
    - Continuing to get up at the same time. For me, that’s early, which can be doubly difficult with the cold and the darkness every morning.
    - Making sure I get out every day and schedule activities with people (friends, family, etc.)
    - Sharing meals with others. If I’m gonna have those cravings, it’s fun to enjoy food with friends and family. I like to cook, and for me, being in the kitchen with all it’s wonderful smells and total messiness, is incredibly healing. And then having people around the table with me, it’s just wonderful.
    - Keeping my mind active. I like to read books. I like to write. I pull those things together to keep myself from sinking into a lethargic state.
    - Taking long, HOT baths. I LOVE THESE!!!!
    - Going to places that have already been anchored in my mind as “feel good” spots. Starbucks with it’s coffee aroma, music, and people coming in & out, for example.
    Again, great post. Thanks!!

  • Dear David, Thanks for writing but… Did you have to mention Starbucks? I’m out of coffee and the closest Starbucks is a mile away. Somehow during their building spree they missed my corner. But I get what you mean, it’s not about the coffee, it’s about hanging out somewhere agreeable with like minded people.
    I love ALL the things you add to the list of helpful stuff. Have you ever tried light therapy? It seems to have mixed results with my clients. I like to start the day early, too. I’m thinking it might help to try the dawn simulator, but they’re a little pricey.

  • Hey Dr. Aletta,
    Well, I’d have to adding WALKING a mile to the list of things that could potentially put one in good spirits! LOL!
    I haven’t tried light therapy, but I could swear I heard one of my friends once say they one of those lights. Not sure how it worked for them though. The dawn simulator sounds cool, but not for the budget conscious like you, me, and the average Jane/Joe. :-)

  • For today it sounds like we’re doing pretty good. You have a wonderful sense of humor, that always helps, and I got my Starbucks fix (hot chocolate). Time now to walk the dog before the light goes. Thanks for the suggestion. Ciao!

  • Yippee! Enjoy! I’m heading over to my local Starbucks right now. And thanks for the nice compliment. :-)


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