Seasonal affective disorder | The signs, symptoms, and treatments

Many of us experience fluctuations in our mood that can last days, weeks or even months. If the onset of depressive symptoms seem to coincide with changes in the weather or temperature, you may be experiencing a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Don’t dismiss seasonal changes to your mood and energy levels. If you feel down or less like yourself when Autumn rolls around, learning more about the signs, symptoms and management techniques for SAD can help you cope.

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a subtype of depression that’s experienced seasonally. SAD usually manifests and goes away with changes in the weather, daylight hours, and temperature. In most cases, symptoms of SAD will manifest in the months before winter, however symptoms can come during summer too.

If you have SAD, you may find that your mood is lower at the tail end of summer. As the weather begins to change, people with SAD may feel sluggish and low without explanation.

Other names for SAD

You might see seasonal affective disorder referred to as something else. Depression that gets worse as the seasons change has several different names, all of which refer to the same condition.

  • Seasonal affective depression
  • Winter blues
  • Winter depression
  • Seasonal mood disorder
  • Seasonal depression
  • Seasonally patterned depressive disorder

What causes SAD?

Research into SAD is ongoing. Whilst the exact cause of seasonal and winter depression is not fully understood, it is thought that reduced exposure to sunlight may be the primary cause.

Because sunlight is important for regulating our mood, when winter rolls around our mind and body can find it difficult to adjust to decreased levels of certain chemicals. People who suffer with SAD may experience reduced and fluctuating production levels of serotonin and melatonin which play a part in maintaining our circadian rhythm.

How common is seasonal depression?

The NHS estimate that around 2 million people in the UK and 12 million people across northern Europe experience SAD every year.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) seems to have a higher prevalence in individuals residing significantly north or south of the equator. This could be because of reduced sunlight exposure in the winter and extended daylight hours during the summer season.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Symptoms of SAD vary from person to person. You may not experience a whole range of symptoms and they may come in waves as the weather continues to progressively change.

Symptoms include:

  • Persistent low mood
  • Low interest in socialising
  • Guilt
  • Feeling more stressed than usual
  • Lowered libido
  • Concentration issues
  • Irritation and short temper
  • Disinterest in enjoyable things and activities
  • Feelings of despair and worthlessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Increased crying or tearfulness

How do we treat SAD?

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellent (NICE) recommends that SAD be treated in line with depression. Professional treatments that can be effective for treating seasonal depression include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)counselling, therapy, and prescription medications like antidepressants.

It’s thought that SAD occurs because of reduced exposure to sunlight. Because of this, treatments you can do yourself at home often revolve around mimicking sunlight intake to improve the production of serotonin in the brain. SAD lamps are a popular way of doing this.

Help for living with SAD

Talk with a professional

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling are two talk-based therapies that can help manage symptoms. Alternatively, click here for a list of helplines for use in case of emergency.

Get as much sunlight as possible

If you suffer with SAD, getting outdoors during daylight hours can drastically improve your mood. Making an effort to take a walk on your work break is a great way to squeeze in some extra time in the sun.

Take a vitamin D supplement

The UK government advise everyone to consider taking a vitamin D supplement during the winter months because of a lack of sunlight exposure.

Consider light therapy

SAD lamps and light therapy boxes crate artificial sunlight exposure which can be effective for some people with SAD.

Common misconceptions about SAD

SAD is a commonly misunderstood and misinterpreted condition. Take a look below for some common myths and misconceptions about seasonal affective disorder:

  • SAD only occurs during the winter
  • Seasonal affective disorder only affects people in colder climates
  • Symptoms come on straight away
  • Everyone experiences symptoms of SAD
  • There is no cure. SAD is something you need to ride out
  • SAD lamps and light therapy are the only treatment

Why does SAD affect certain people?

In the same way that depression doesn’t affect everyone, not everyone will experience SAD. Alternatively, some people experience depressive symptoms that do not get worse during winter. It’s estimated that around 1 in 15 people in the UK will experience some form of SAD each year.

Are SAD lamps effective?

If you’ve investigated SAD treatments for yourself or a loved one, you’ve likely come across SAD lamps. SAD lamps are light therapy devices you can use at home that have the user sit in front of a light box or lamp for between 30 to 60 minutes every morning.

Light therapy is thought to mimic the effects of sunlight exposure, making it popular with individuals who experience SAD in the winter when the days are shorter.

If you own a SAD lamp, you use it in the morning because light exposure encourages the production of serotonin (the hormone that positively affects your mood) and decreases the production of melatonin (the chemical that makes you sleepy).

Why does SAD affect certain people?

In the same way that depression doesn’t affect everyone, not everyone will experience SAD. Alternatively, some people experience depressive symptoms that do not get worse during winter. It’s estimated that around 1 in 15 people in the UK will experience some form of SAD each year.

If you suffer with depression, it’s worth monitoring your mood with extra attention in the lead up to winter. Daylight hours decreasing and a temperature drop can also be triggers if you experience depression all year round.

Should I take vitamin D for SAD?

The UK government advise that everyone should consider taking a vitamin D supplement during the winter and autumn months.

Can you get SAD in the summer?

Yes, you can. SAD is a seasonal disorder, not a winter disorder.

Whilst it’s true that the overwhelming number of SAD cases occur during the winter months (so much so that it’s even commonly referred to as winter depression), many people do experience symptoms of the condition in the summer months.

Summer depression can occur for much the same reasons as SAD in the winter. Our brains react differently to fluctuating levels of sunlight and heat exposure. This means some people feel sad, tired, and stressed out whilst others are out having fun in the sun.

Can SAD affect other health conditions?

If you suffer with depression year-round, you may find your mood drops further during the autumn and winter months. This is because SAD is a subtype of depression, with the two conditions having several mutual and overlapping triggers and symptoms.

If you struggle with sleep or insomnia, changing daylight hours can make getting good quality sleep more difficult. It’s thought that SAD and a delay in circadian timing can make falling asleep and waking up the following morning more difficult.

There’s also growing research to suggest that there is a link between bipolar disorder and SAD. It’s estimated that between 11 and 50% of people diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder also meet the criteria for a bipolar disorder diagnosis. The manic and depressive episodes bipolar disorder causes can become seasonal in some individuals. This indicates that the same seasonal triggers that influence SAD symptoms may extend to bipolar disorder.

When to seek help

Help for SAD is available.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed above and feel like SAD is impacting your day-to-day life, consider talking to a professional. Effective and widely used treatments for SAD include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling.

SAD treatment at Nuffield Health

Our services are confidential, and our professionals will conduct an initial assessment to determine the right therapy for you. You can schedule a call with our therapists at your convenience by clicking this link.

If you’re wondering what types of therapy are on offer and which one might be right for you, click here to learn more.

What to expect when you call

A call to Nuffield Health involves a 30-minute conversation with one of our skilled therapists. This is your opportunity to openly discuss your challenges and your reasons for seeking support. The therapist will ask questions to understand your symptoms and to make sure you’re feeling safe and secure.

You'll also have the chance to explore treatment options and schedule sessions with one of our therapists at a time that suits you. Contacting a therapist is the first step toward improving your mental wellbeing and we're here to guide you through the process.

Last updated Tuesday 14 November 2023

First published on Thursday 9 November 2023