Skip to main content

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): More Than Just The "Winter Blues"

The rush and excitement of the holidays is behind us and we are now deep into winter, experiencing day after day of frigid temperatures, snow and ice, less sunlight, and more time indoors. If you’re a snow lover or winter sport enthusiast, our Wyoming and Idaho winters are made for you! For the rest of us, we are anxious to put the long winter behind us and welcome the warmth and renewal of spring. Unfortunately, spring is still months away.  (Sigh.) It’s not uncommon for us to develop a case of the winter blues this time of year. And that’s okay! We all get a little down from time to time, but it is not severe and it does pass. It’s when feelings of depression become overwhelming and persistent, affecting our daily life, that we should be concerned.

One type of depression, often confused with “winter blues” is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). To be clear, SAD is not a passing case of the winter blues - it is a serious depressive disorder. Individuals experiencing symptoms of SAD, should seek treatment from a medical or mental health professional.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (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 Disorder include:

  • 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. 2

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 are the treatments for 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
  • Psychotherapy – specifically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Vitamin D therapy

For more information, 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.



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,

Back to top