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Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal mood disorder or seasonal depression, is a condition characterized by serious mood changes in the winter months when there is less natural sunlight. This type of depression usually lifts in the summer when it is warmer and sunnier outside.

There are things that you can do at home to cope with the symptoms, and rehab centers for seasonal affective disorder can provide medication, talking therapies, and light therapy to help you overcome.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Symptoms of seasonal depression usually begin to develop in the late fall and early winter, and are very similar to the symptoms of clinical depression, according to MedlinePlus.

  • Sad, anxious, or ‘empty’ feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Sluggish movements
  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed
  • Fatigue, decreased energy
  • Body aches or pains
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  • Low sex drive
  • Weight changes
  • Social withdrawal
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Not everyone with SAD experiences all of these symptoms, though they are the mostly commonly reported symptoms.

Causes of SAD

seasonal mood disorder

Individuals with seasonal depression experience depressive symptoms during the winter, when there is less sunlight.

While the exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is unknown, it is most commonly attributed to a lack of exposure to sunlight. Some scientists believe the disorder to be a product of modern society due to the fact that modern humans are much more likely to spend extended lengths of time indoors. According to the Bates University Health Center, this lack of sunlight causes a biochemical balance in the brain. Specifically, darkness triggers the production of melatonin which is a sleep hormone that is linked to depression. Increased levels of melatonin cause by decreased sunlight in the winter can cause the changes in mood, energy and concentration that are associated with seasonal depression.

Susceptibility to seasonal depression may also be stress-related and/or genetic, according to Bryn Mawr College.  The National Health Service in the UK also suggests the possibility of these factors’ contribution to SAD, and suggests a few other possible causes. One involves the production of the important neurotransmitter, serotonin. When we are exposed to less sunlight, the body produces less serotonin. In people with SAD, levels of serotonin may be even lower, having an effect on mood, appetite, and sleep. Seasonal affective disorder may also be caused by changes in the body’s circadian rhythm, or how the body is regulated. The circadian rhythm is affected by light sources, and a lack of sunlight may disrupt this ‘internal clock’ of sorts and lead to the symptoms of SAD.

When to Seek Help for Seasonal Depression

If you think that you may be affected by SAD and are experiencing the symptoms, seek help from your doctor or another medical/treatment professional. They can help you determine if you are indeed experiencing seasonal affective disorder and can advise you on the best ways to cope. Seasonal depression is nothing to mess around with, as it can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions.

Treatment at Seasonal Affective Disorder Rehab Centers

There are several different treatments for seasonal affective disorder, as with other forms of depression.

Rehab centers for seasonal depression may incorporate these therapies into treatment:

  • Light therapy
  • Antidepressants
  • Talk therapy

According to the US National Library of Medicine light therapy is often an effective treatment for seasonal depression. However, only about half of people with SAD respond to light therapy alone. Antidepressants and talk therapy have been known to help, as well.

Light Therapy

Light therapy uses a special light box or light visor that provides cool-white fluorescent light to mimic the sun. Light therapy for SAD is started in the fall or early winter before symptoms of SAD show. How it is specifically administered can vary, but one popular way is to sit in front of a light box, about one foot away, for about 30 minutes each day. This may be done early in the morning to mimic the sunrise. One important thing to remember with light therapy is that it can damage the eyes to look directly at a light source, so this is not recommended. Light therapy may start reducing SAD symptoms within a week of starting treatment, but it could take up to 4 weeks or not work at all for some people.


Antidepressants are medications that are used to treat depression, and are able to effectively treat the episodes of depression associated with seasonal depression. Typically these medications work within three weeks, though it could take up to eight weeks for an improvement to be felt. Some rehab centers for SAD will incorporate antidepressants with light therapy and counseling.

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy and counseling can be in a one-on-one or a group setting. Talking with a counselor can greatly improve the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, and the specific approaches they use can help, too. In a group setting, having the emotional support of people who are going through a similar thing can be a great help in coping. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you change your thought and behavior patterns to help alleviate the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

Things You Can Do to Cope With SAD

There are things you can do at home and in your everyday life to cope with seasonal depression, as with other forms of depression. Staying healthy, getting proper sleep and trying to do things that you enjoy can be indispensable when you are coping with SAD.

  • Eat healthy foods – this will provide you with more energy
  • Exercise often, even daily – this can help to raise serotonin levels and reduce stress
  • Try to get the right amount of sleep (exercise will help) – do not oversleep, as this can cause increases in the levels of melatonin in your body and increase feelings of depression
  • Try to go outside more often – even cloudy days can provide you with some natural light
  • Do not use illegal drugs or alcohol – these substances can worsen depression
  • Try to be around caring and positive people – they can help you feel happier, reduce stress
  • Get involved in group activities – again, being around people can help reduce the stress and loneliness associated with SAD
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