Do I Have SAD-Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Updated February 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you experienced a notable change in mood at certain times of year, especially in winter? If so, you are not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 6% of people in the United States experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD). More than just sadness in winter, SAD can produce a variety of symptoms. Below, we’ll look at SAD, its symptoms, and how you can determine if you experience it. 

Learn About Seasonal Affective Disorder.

For many people, the season and the weather can have an impact on their mood. If you feel sad, tired, or different as fall and winter approach, it might be more than just the blues. You may have seasonal affective disorder, which is commonly referred to as SAD. Seasonal affective disorder is a mental health disorder that falls under the category of depression.

Unlike major depression, seasonal affective disorder doesn’t tend to stick around all year. It can be easy to miss a diagnosis of SAD because people with the condition may fell well for most of the year. If this sounds like something you’re experiencing, a mental health professional may be able to provide a proper diagnosis and treatment.

What Is the Difference Between SAD and Major Depressive Disorder?

What can be confusing about seasonal affective disorder is that a diagnosis involves having the official criteria for major depression and having them for at least two years. The difference is that seasonal affective disorder tends to display a seasonal pattern. You might have major depression if your sadness and other symptoms are present all year long. If you have seasonal depression and it’s more frequent than any non-seasonal depression, you might consider asking a mental health professional to help you determine what kind of depression you’re experiencing. 

Many people with seasonal affective disorder find that their mood starts to worsen around early fall or early winter. When spring or summer rolls around, the symptoms tend to disappear or lessen greatly. That’s not to say that someone can’t experience symptoms at all during the warmer months. A few weeks of rainy, gloomy days during the summer might cause symptoms of SAD to emerge. Most people find that the symptoms dissipate when the sun starts to shine again.

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Seasonal Affect Disorder?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides lots of information on seasonal affective disorder. NIMH lists the following main symptoms of seasonal affect disorder:

  • Having very little energy

  • Experiencing sleepiness or hypersomnia

  • Eating more than normal

  • Gaining weight

  • Craving carbohydrates

  • Withdrawing socially

Some people who live with seasonal affective disorder may also have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Weight loss associate with lack of appetite

  • Insomnia

  • Feelings of irritation or agitation

  • Restlessness

  • Anxiety

  • Unusual violent behavior

If you compare the symptoms of SAD with those of major depression, you may see some key differences. The symptoms of major depression may involve feeling depressed most of the day on most days. Individuals experiencing major depression often have low energy and may feel hopeless or worthless. Other symptoms may include loss of interest in activities, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating. Changes in your appetite or weight in one direction or the other may also indicate major depression, as can feelings of sluggishness or irritation. In severe cases of major depression, some people may experience thoughts of death or suicide. If you’re having those kinds of thoughts, it’s best to seek professional help right away.

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached by dialing 988, and it’s available 24/7.

Does Light Therapy Work For Seasonal Affect Disorder?

Learn About Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Since the dark days tend to make the symptoms of seasonal affect disorder (SAD) worse, you may be wondering about whether the light has a positive effect on the disorder. The general answer is yes. This may be one of the reasons that seasonal affective disorder light therapy can be effective for some people.

One of the first successful treatments for SAD dates back to the 1980s, and that was light therapy. Where the sun doesn’t tend to shine in the fall and winter seasons, having exposure to bright, artificial light may significantly improve the symptoms of SAD. The light therapy treatment consists of sitting in front of a lightbox first thing in the morning as soon as symptoms appear. This can be practiced every day until the spring. The lightboxes contain 10,000 lux cool-white fluorescent light, and they have 20 times more light than regular indoor lighting does.

Other types of treatments for seasonal affective disorder may also be effective. These include medication, psychotherapy, and vitamin D. 

Vitamin D Supplements

If your doctor agrees, you might also start taking vitamin D and see if it makes a difference for you. People with SAD have been found to have low levels of vitamin D in their systems, which could be due to either a lack of exposure to the sun or a lack of vitamin D in the diet. A study in 2014 showed mixed results for those who took vitamin D to treat seasonal affective disorder. Some studies showed that vitamin D was as effective as light therapy, and other studies showed it didn’t have any effect at all.

Some people find that medications can be helpful in treating the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Depending on your health profile, physicians may prescribe medications to supplement other types of treatments. Be aware that medications may be accompanied by uncomfortable side effects, and they can sometimes interfere with other medications you’re taking to treat other conditions. Your physician is your best resource to help you understand whether adding a medication to your treatment regime for seasonal affective disorder is right for you.

Many people who live with seasonal affective disorder find help by seeing a therapist. The most common type of psychotherapy for seasonal affective disorder is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). A therapist may use CBT to help you identify negative thoughts and replace them with more positive thoughts in connection with another therapeutic technique called behavioral activation. The behavioral activation component might enable you to identify activities that you can enjoy inside or outside to help you cope with the winter.

People With SAD: Who Gets It And Why?

Researchers haven’t been able to figure out conclusively why some people get seasonal affective disorder and others don’t. They have been able to identify specific reasons and populations of people that tend to be more affected by it than others.

For some unknown reason, women are four times more likely to experience SAD than men are. Women who are nurses or who work second shift may be even more likely to experience SAD.

Men and women who live far north or south of the equator may also be more prone to getting SAD. One study shows that 1% of Florida residents and 9% of those in New England and Alaska live with SAD.

Researchers also believe that people with a family history of other types of depression may acquire SAD more quickly than others who don’t have family living with depression. People who have already been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder may have worse symptoms in the colder months. Also, younger adults more commonly experience symptoms of SAD than older adults do.

Some other common denominators that researchers have found in people diagnosed with SAD is that they tend to have more melatonin in their bodies, which is the hormone for your sleep. The melatonin increases with the shorter days of daylight, which can throw off your natural circadian rhythm, making you feel listless and tired.

As noted earlier, people with SAD may produce less vitamin D than others do. Vitamin D is connected to serotonin, a chemical in your brain that contributes to happiness. NMIH states that people with SAD have 5% more serotonin transporter protein during the winter than in the summer, which leaves less serotonin available to help improve your mood.

How Therapy Can Help

As noted above, therapy may prove effective for relieving symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). If you aren’t feeling well enough to leave home, you might try online therapy. Research has demonstrated that online therapy is effective for a number of mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression. With BetterHelp, you can talk to a licensed therapist from home, and you go to live chat via in-app messaging.


If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, know that there are treatments available. You may benefit from talking to a licensed therapist to get some evidence-based strategies for improving your mental health in the winter. Reach out to BetterHelp to get matched with a licensed therapist today. 

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