How To Find Relief From Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Symptoms

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated April 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It can be normal to experience ups and downs throughout the year. However, some individuals may be happy and well-adjusted for most of the year, suddenly experiencing a severe shift to depression when the seasons change. If you have been experiencing this pattern of depressive symptoms, you might be living with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This condition can affect anyone and often occurs during the fall and winter.

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What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

By learning more about the symptoms of SAD, you may better understand if they apply to you. Are you often more fatigued in the cold winter months? Do you stop going out and meeting with friends after fall ends? Have you noticed when the winter comes, you tend to eat more carbohydrates? These symptoms are signs of SAD.  

The symptoms of this depressive disorder can be mild or severe but often mimic the symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD), also known as clinical depression. The only difference between the conditions is how long they last and why they occur. SAD often goes away after the inciting season ends. 

Seasonal affective disorder most commonly appears between the ages of 18 to 30. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the symptoms of SAD include the following: 

  • Sadness or a depressed mood arising at the change of seasons 
  • Less interest in previously enjoyed activities 
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleeping habits, often sleeping more than usual
  • Increased fatigue and energy loss despite sleeping more
  • Increased restlessness or slowed speech
  • Thoughts of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Guilt and shame
  • Difficulty thinking, focusing, and making decisions
  • Thoughts of suicide 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also offers an online chat for those with an internet connection.

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How to get relief from SAD

If you've been experiencing SAD symptoms but didn't have a name for the cause, getting a diagnosis may be the first step to understanding the types of treatment available for your condition. Two common types of treatment for SAD are light therapy and psychotherapy. Your physician can review your medical history to advise the best course of treatment for you.

Light therapy for seasonal affect disorder

Studies have shown that light therapy improves depression scores for people with SAD. Lightboxes may also improve symptoms of other types of depression, sleep disorders, dementia, jet lag, and other conditions. Lightboxes can also be helpful for workers who are trying to adjust to a night work schedule.

By getting the proper lightbox, light therapy for depression is safe. However, there may be a few side effects connected with this treatment, so it can be essential to use light therapy alongside other types of treatment, such as psychotherapy. Lightboxes are safe for pregnant and nursing parents who experience SAD. 

How does light therapy work? 

A benefit of light therapy is that it often works quickly. You may experience relief from SAD within just a few days of starting treatment. However, it can take up to a few weeks for some people. Those who try this treatment may find that light therapy eases the symptoms, boosts their energy levels, and increases positive self-talk. 

Be aware that light therapy for skin conditions is different than SAD. Light therapy treatment for SAD should filter out as much UV light as possible because it can damage your eyes and skin. For this reason, do not substitute a tanning bed for light therapy for SAD, as it gives off the wrong light and may damage your skin.

A light therapy box gives off a bright light mimicking the sun's natural healing properties. Place it near where you sit or work and turn it on. Researchers believe that lightboxes relieve symptoms of SAD because they affect chemicals in the brain linked to mood and sleep.

Are there risks of light therapy for SAD?

As with any health treatment plan, ask your doctor about the potential side effects of light therapy. The most common side effects may include strained eyes, headache, nausea, and irritability. Some people living with bipolar disorder may find that lightbox therapy increases mania, euphoria, or hyperactivity symptoms. Work with your physician if you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and suspect that you also have SAD.

The side effects of light therapy are often mild and disappear after a few days. In addition, there may be ways to reduce the risks of using light therapy. You can move farther from the lightbox, decrease your treatment time, or take a few breaks during long sessions. It may also help to change the time of day you use light therapy.

People with SAD often find it best to use light therapy while under their doctor's care. Your doctor may be able to provide you with recommendations for a reasonably priced, quality lightbox. Your lightbox for SAD must have around 10,000 lux of light and be a type that mimics outdoor light. Boxes with less light or too much light may be harmful or ineffective. 

Before starting light therapy, talk with your doctor about any current medications or herbal remedies you may be taking that could increase your sensitivity to light. In addition, advise your physician of any eye conditions that might make your eyes vulnerable to light damage.

How to start light therapy 

For those who get SAD symptoms in the fall and winter, the best time to begin using a light therapy box may be when the weather gets cloudier in your city. Treatment may work best when you use the light therapy box until spring or when the sunlight returns. Stay in communication with your doctor regarding the appearance and severity of symptoms to adjust the timing and duration of light therapy if needed. 

Light therapy for SAD is most effective when your light therapy box has the right combination of intensity, duration, and timing. The light needs to reach your eyes indirectly. Exposing just your skin may not be as effective. 

In addition, you may not have to take time out of your day to dedicate to light therapy treatment. Instead, set your light box on a table or desk in your home or office. During the treatment, you can read, use your computer, write, watch TV, eat, or talk on the phone you sit close enough to get the benefits of the light. 

The intensity of your lightbox is recorded in lux, which is the measurement of light that reaches your skin. The typical recommendation for SAD is to use a lightbox with 10,000 lux and place it about 16 to 24 inches from your face. Using your light box for 20 to 30 minutes per day is recommended. Light therapy boxes with lower lux levels may work but require longer sessions. In addition, your light therapy may be more effective if you start in the morning. 

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Psychotherapy for treating SAD

Although light therapy can be effective, people with SAD may find further relief by attending psychotherapy with a licensed therapist. Therapists commonly use a type of therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat depressive disorders. During treatment, your therapist may guide you in addressing maladaptive thoughts and behaviors alongside strategies for coping during the winter months. 

Some people with depression may struggle to find time for therapy or have difficulty getting out of bed in the winter. In these cases, you can find therapy for SAD online through platforms like BetterHelp. Online therapy is more convenient, as you can attend sessions from home. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

Studies back up the effectiveness of online therapy for depression. One study found that online CBT could achieve significantly positive results for people living with depressive disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder. The results were comparable with in-person treatment outcomes. 

Takeaway

Seasonal affective disorder can be challenging to live with. However, treatment is available, and this condition is often highly treatable. If you're struggling with SAD or want to learn more about depressive disorders, consider reaching out to a therapist to explore your treatment options and receive additional guidance.
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