What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and how can I prevent it?

Are you familiar with the term ‘winter blues’? Those who live in colder climates likely know it all too well. While the winter blues is common when the colder months come along, some people may experience a severe form of this known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that arises during a change in the seasons.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, roughly 3 in every 100 people in the U.K. experience SAD.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder typically emerges during the colder winter months. While there is no direct cause of SAD, health experts believe that the decline in both daylight hours and sunlight during this time leads to chemical changes in the brain that could result in depression. 

Sunlight exposure causes a release of a mood-boosting hormone known as Serotonin, so when you have minimal access to natural light, your Serotonin levels will inevitably go down. 

SAD symptoms

Someone living with Seasonal Affective Disorder may experience some – or all – of the following symptoms. Experts say these symptoms usually emerge and go away around the same time each year. 

  • Feelings of sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Weight gain
  • Craving foods high in carbohydrates 
  • Fatigue 
  • Feelings of hopelessness 
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Limbs feeling heavy
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Sleeping more
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder

While you may experience some of the above symptoms when the seasons change, it’s important to distinguish the difference between the winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

Although it is normal to feel gloomy during winter, Cleveland Clinic health experts emphasize that SAD is a formal type of depression that significantly impacts your daily life. In the event you notice that your symptoms are affecting your livelihood or getting worse, you should consult with a doctor who can formally diagnose whether you have Seasonal Affective Disorder and help you establish a treatment plan.

Who’s at risk?

According to American Family Physician, Seasonal Affective Disorder is up to four times more common in women than in men. SAD typically doesn’t appear in people under 20, but children and teens are still at risk. Additionally, your likelihood of developing this disorder decreases with age. 

As you might imagine, SAD is also more prevalent in northern, colder climates. 

Can you experience SAD during the summer?

Although Seasonal Affective Disorder is more prevalent in autumn and winter, it is possible to develop this condition during spring and summer – also known as summer depression. People with summer SAD may experience distinct seasonal symptoms, including insomnia, poor appetite, weight loss, or anxiety.

Summertime depression triggers

The warmer, sunnier weather may seem like a happier time, but health experts say certain factors could trigger depressive episodes.

  • Schedule changes

People with seasonal occupations, like teaching, may struggle with the loss of structure in their daily schedule when summer break rolls around. Summer is also a popular vacation time, which means that office workers who stay behind may be hit with a bigger workload that could cause anxiety and stress.

  • Vacations

As mentioned, summer is a prime vacation season. While they’re usually regarded as a time to relax, vacations can also be stressful due to the extra money you spend or the work you put into planning one. Holidays to visit relatives may also trigger feelings of anxiousness.

  • Psychosocial problems

Experts with the University of Michigan Health say that stress and anxiety can arise from experiences such as divorce, especially if children have to be moved around frequently. 

  • Daylight adjustments

The days are longer this time of year, which could also impact your sleep schedule. 

  • Social gatherings

The warm weather may also mean more opportunities to gather with friends and family and consume alcoholic beverages. Health experts say that alcohol use can contribute to feelings of depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder and sleep

Summer SAD

As mentioned, summertime depression has been linked to insomnia and anxiety, and the two are closely connected. Insomnia is a common symptom for those with an anxiety disorder. This could lead to a chain reaction in which Seasonal Affective Disorder worsens feelings of anxiety, which can then cause you to have trouble sleeping. 

Winter SAD

While summer SAD may have you experiencing insomnia, winter depression could do just the opposite, causing you to oversleep. Considering the gray skies outside and cold temperatures, it’s understandable to prefer staying in your cozy, warm bed. However, the reason folks may find themselves resting more this time of year is likely a bit more scientific. 

At night, your brain begins producing the sleep-inducing hormone Melatonin. This is a part of your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle – or circadian rhythm – and light is one of your internal clock’s primary triggers. 

Daylight tells the body it’s time to wake up, while nighttime signals your body to prepare for sleep. However, the shorter, darker days of winter can increase Melatonin production, causing you to feel more tired and sluggish.


Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression, and people with depression often have sleep problems. Furthermore, those very same sleep struggles can exacerbate feelings of depression, leading to a problematic cycle. People living with insomnia, for instance, are more likely to develop depression than those who get quality rest.

Ways to manage Seasonal Affective Disorder

Whether you have Seasonal Affective Disorder or its milder cousin, the winter blues, you should take the initiative to help alleviate your symptoms and improve your well-being. 

Spend time outside

Sunlight may be more limited during the fall and winter, but you should still try and get as much of it as you can. Bundle up and take a walk outside during the day, or if it’s too cold to go out, you can sit near a window to access natural light. This may also be a prime opportunity to take up a winter sport or activity, which not only allows you to regularly spend time outdoors but also reap the mood-boosting benefits of exercise.

Eat a healthy diet

Consuming a healthy diet should help give you more energy, which should leave you feeling better and less inclined to oversleep.

Visit friends and family

Spending time with friends and family can help improve your mood, especially if you feel lonely and isolated. Volunteering within your local community is also a great way to stay social and help others in the process.


Exercise is a powerful tool to help prevent depression. Going for a walk, run or taking part in an outdoor group fitness class could help you harness both the positive effects of daylight exposure and exercise. You can find classes with our classfinder search today.

Plan fun activities

Make time to plan for excursions and activities that you love to do. This might include going to the movie theater, visiting a museum, or taking an art class.

Seek help

In the event you find that your symptoms are not getting better, you should immediately reach out to a healthcare professional for help. According to the American Psychological Association, psychotherapy is an effective treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

A doctor or psychologist may specifically recommend light therapy. This form of SAD treatment involves sitting near a light box that imitates natural sunlight, and since SAD is closely connected to a decrease in daylight exposure, a light box may be able to help.