Seasonal Affective Disorder: Why Some Struggle With It, and How to Cope

Many of us embrace late fall and winter as a time to slow down, cuddle up, and perform a mild version of hibernation. It’s natural, after all, to want to hunker down when it’s cold and wintry outside. But for a number of people — about 5% of adults in the US — this instinct goes beyond swapping outdoor activities for a nap. Approximately 10 million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a type of depression triggered by the change of season and that typically grows more severe as winter progresses. (For the purposes of this article, we are focusing on winter-onset SAD, although some people do suffer from summer-onset SAD, which can be a different beast entirely.)

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

It’s more than just the winter blues. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, considered a type of depression rather than a separate disorder, lasts for about 40% of the year and goes beyond just feeling down. Like regular depression, it leads to feelings of sadness, losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed, and low energy. It means having difficulty concentrating, feeling sluggish, agitated, hopeless, or guilty. But more specifically it may cause fatigue, over-sleeping, a craving for carbohydrates, and weight gain. In more severe cases, some may have thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation.

What Causes SAD?

Unfortunately, the specific cause of SAD remains unknown, but several factors most likely play a role. According to the Mayo Clinic, the reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may affect our circadian rhythm, also known as our biological clock. The decrease in sunlight leads to a drop in serotonin  (a neurotransmitter that affects mood) and our melatonin levels, which play a role in sleep patterns and mood. So, the further from the equator you live, the less sunlight you get in winter and the more likely you are to suffer from SAD. 

The lack of sun isn’t the only potential cause of SAD. Gender apparently plays a role. Women are four times more likely to get diagnosed with it. Anyone who has a family history or a preexisting disorder (such as depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD) is also far more likely. Younger people are also more prone to having SAD than the elderly.

How Can We Treat SAD?

Fortunately, several methods have proven to be helpful for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The first line of defense includes phototherapy, which requires users to sit in front of a special light box within the first hour of waking up. While research is limited, this has shown to be fairly effective for reducing the symptoms of SAD, and has very few side effects. There are approximately eleventy-billion kinds of light  boxes with all kinds of different features, so if you think one could help you make sure to do some preliminary research. 

If a light box hasn’t proven effective, your doctor may recommend antidepressants, Vitamin D,  and therapy. The antidepressant Wellbutrin has shown to be particularly effective against SAD, but clearly, consult with your doctor if you think you are suffering from depression of any kind.

And finally, (although for those who’ve had depression this induces one giant collective eye-roll) getting outside and getting some exercise are also vital to maintaining your mental health. This can seem a colossal undertaking if you’re struggling with lethargy, a lack of motivation, and you no longer enjoy your typical activities, but if there is someone you trust who could help get you moving, experts say it could boost your mood and improve your quality of sleep.

Get Immediate Help

If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.