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Is the Change in Seasons Making You SAD? It Might be Seasonal Affective Disorder

It’s October, and change is in the air. It’s time for us to say goodbye to the last warm days of summer and say hello to the crisp mornings and colorful leaves of fall, all the while preparing for the shorter days, frigid temperatures and white landscape of the winter soon to come. In Wyoming and Idaho, fall may be the most transitional time of year. In fact, it’s not uncommon to experience all three of these seasons in one day.

While some welcome the fall season with dreams of pumpkin spice lattes, cozy sweaters and growing excitement for upcoming holidays with family and friends, others respond to the change in season in quite a different manner… with mood changes and depression symptoms that are so severe and oppressive that it can force them into “hibernation” until spring. For these individuals, the fall and winter seasons trigger a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) that follows a seasonal pattern. Typically, symptoms begin in late fall or early winter and last throughout the winter months, usually subsiding by spring or summer. The most difficult months for people with SAD tend to be January and February.

Some individuals experience the onset of SAD symptoms in the summer months, but it is far less common. In either case, symptoms tend to appear and end at the same time each year, with symptoms starting out mild and increasing in severity as the season progresses.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include:

Symptoms of Major Depression
  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.
Symptoms of winter-onset SAD include:
  • Having low energy
  • Hypersomnia
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Craving for carbohydrates
  • Social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”)
Symptoms of summer-onset SAD include:
  • Poor appetite with associated weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Episodes of violent behavior

What causes SAD?

The exact cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder is unknown. However, it is suspected that the shorter days and reduced sunlight in the fall and winter months is to blame for winter-onset SAD.  Decreased exposure to sunlight can cause disruptions in circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock), Vitamin D deficiency, and reduced levels of serotonin – all of which can lead to feelings of depression.

On the same note, the change in season can also disrupt the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a key role in sleep patterns. Darkness increases the production of melatonin, so as winter days get shorter, levels of melatonin increase, causing people with SAD to feel sleepier and more lethargic. 

What are the risk factors for SAD?

Risk factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder include:

  • Gender – SAD is diagnosed 4x more often in women than men.
  • Youth – SAD is more prominent in young adults, with the average age of onset being between 20-30 years of age. However, it has even been reported in children and teens.
  • Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder – Individuals who already have either of these two conditions may experience worsening symptoms seasonally.
  • Family history – SAD poses a higher risk for individuals with a family history of depression or other psychological disorders.
  • Location from the equator – SAD is more prevalent in individuals that live far north or south of the equator. These locations experience decreased sunlight in winter and longer days in the summer, which is believed to be a factor.

What should you do if you think you are experiencing symptoms of SAD?

If you think you or a loved one may be experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, it is important to seek medical advice to confirm that there are no underlying medical conditions that may be causing these symptoms. Once a professional diagnosis has been given, there are several treatment options that have proven effective in treating SAD, including:

  • Light therapy – increased exposure to sunlight, as well as the use of Happy Lights.
  • Medication – particularly, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) anti-depressant medication
  • Talk therapy – specifically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Vitamin D therapy

Experts believe that this could be a particularly difficult winter for Seasonal Affective Disorder, given the isolating conditions that COVID-19 has caused. Depression and anxiety have been on the rise, with many people struggling with emotional and financial burdens brought on by the pandemic. In addition, the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting “colder and above normal snowfall this winter”, which will likely mean shorter, darker days and more time indoors.  So, it seems that conditions are ripe for a particularly challenging SAD winter season. Make sure to practice self-care throughout the winter and check on those you love.

For more information or if you know of someone who may be at risk, please contact your local HCBH office. We are here to help.  If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.


Mental Health Resources

High Country Behavioral Health provides mental health and addiction services in Western Wyoming and Eastern Idaho.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1.800.662.4357 is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.

Wyoming Department of Health

Idaho Department of Health and Welfare

Wyoming-Based Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK

Idaho Suicide Prevention 208-398-4357

National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255



Felix Torres, M.D., MBA, DFAPA, “Seasonal Affective Disorder”, American Psychiatric Association, October 2020,

National Institute of Mental Health, “Seasonal Affective Disorder”, National Institute of Mental Health, March 2016.

Mayo Clinic, “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)”, Mayo Clinic,

Mental Health First Aid, “Feeling SAD? It Could be Seasonal Affective Disorder”, Mental Health First Aid, December 15, 2017,

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