Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs mostly in the fall and winter months when the days are shorter. We talked with psychiatrist Martin Buxton, MD, medical director of Tucker Pavilion at Chippenham Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, to learn more about SAD.

Who Gets Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD affects up to 10% of Americans and is more common in women, but it can also affect men and children of all ages. People with SAD often have a family history of depression and/or have experienced depression or bipolar disorder in the past, says Dr. Buxton.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Unlike other depressive disorders, the symptoms of SAD are more predictable to sufferers as they occur during certain seasons of the year. Symptoms may include:

  • Sadness, irritability and anxiety
  • Loss of interest in and withdrawal from normal activities
  • Inability to concentrate; indecisiveness
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Change in appetite
  • Craving of carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

While the symptoms of SAD generally resolve when the seasons change, it could evolve into a major depression if you have a family history of the disorder, says Buxton. If you have symptoms of SAD, see your doctor to be evaluated.

Diagnosis and Treatment
“There is no biological test for seasonal affective disorder,” says Buxton. Instead, it’s diagnosed by taking a look at a patient’s history of symptoms from the past couple of years. Fortunately, there are plenty of treatments available for people suffering from the disorder. They include:

  • Lifestyle modifications: Spend some time outdoors each day, get enough sleep each night and try to exercise for 30 minutes at least three times a week, says Buxton. Also, if possible, take a vacation. “If you can take a trip to the Bahamas or further south towards the equator, it can be very helpful,” Buxton adds.
  • Light Therapy: During light therapy, also called phototherapy, you sit in front of a very bright light box (about two to three feet away) or wear a light visor for a prescribed amount of time every day during the fall and winter seasons. While light therapy is generally safe, there are some side effects, including eyestrain, headache, insomnia and fatigue.
  • Counseling: Therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can be very helpful, says Buxton. CBT, or “talk therapy,” focuses on identifying, challenging and changing negative thoughts and feelings. A goal of treatment is to help the patient learn to deemphasize negative thoughts and emphasize more positive ones.
  • Medications: If the above treatments don’t work, your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant medicine, such as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).

Often, the best treatment is a combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle modifications, says Buxton.

If you or a loved one is suffering from seasonal affective disorder, find a doctor in your area to get help today. 

See More from Dr. Buxton:
How do I know if my child is more than just "sad" or "moody"?
What are some signs that my child is a victime of cyberbullying?
What should I do if I think my child is depressed?

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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