Exploring Healthy Coping Skills For Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Updated April 25, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It can be confusing when you only experience depression symptoms during specific seasons. For many people, it can make them doubt the validity of their depression and delay seeking treatment. Read on to learn more about the definition, symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options for seasonal affective disorder, also called seasonal depression. 

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, seasonal affective disorder is a depression subtype where symptoms coincide with seasonal changes. SAD begins and fades at roughly the same times each year, leaving you with an extended depressive episode that doesn’t dissipate until the weather changes again. 

Do You Know The Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment Options?

Common SAD Symptoms

People who have SAD often experience the following symptoms during the affected season. 

  • Feeling sad or restless for most of the day nearly every day
  • Anhedonia, or loss of interest in things you used to like
  • Loss of energy and persistent fatigue
  • Changes to sleep pattern, either sleeping too much or not enough
  • Difficulty concentrating, thinking clearly, or making decisions
  • Overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, misplaced guilt, or worthlessness
  • Intrusive suicidal thoughts or actions. 

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7.

To meet the criteria for SAD, you must exhibit the symptoms of major depressive disorder and experience depressive episodes during specific seasons for at least two consecutive years. You may also notice that while you have depressive episodes year-round, such as those with persistent depressive disorder, they occur more frequently during specific seasons. 

Fall And Winter SAD

Winter-onset SAD, also called winter depression, typically begins during late fall or early winter and persists until the longer sunny days of late spring and early summer. In addition to the SAD symptoms listed above, you may also oversleep, gain weight due to craving and overeating carbohydrates, or feel constantly tired with low energy. 

Spring And Summer SAD

Summer-onset SAD, also called summer depression, generally starts in late spring or early summer and lingers through late fall or early winter. Beyond the SAD symptoms listed above, many people with spring and summer SAD have trouble sleeping, weight loss due to decreased appetite, agitation or anxiety, or increased irritability. 

How SAD Can Affect Your Life

Seasonal affective disorder can influence many aspects of your daily life, as any depressive disorder can. SAD can affect your thoughts and feelings, but treatment can help you learn healthy ways to get through complex moods and emotions. 

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Some people adjust to changes in the weather and amount of sunlight better than others. Biological clock changes can lead to SAD. Researchers also believe a neurochemistry imbalance, vitamin D deficiency, negative thought patterns, and melatonin boosts may contribute to the development of SAD. 

Risk Factors

  • Another mood disorder comorbid to SAD, such as bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder 
  • Close relatives with SAD or other mental health conditions 
  • Living at latitudes far north or south of the equator where there's less sunlight during the summer and winter 
  • Living in cloudy regions without much sunlight. 

How Is SAD Diagnosed?

The process of diagnosing seasonal affective disorder generally involves a physical exam to rule out other potential causes for your symptoms. Your healthcare provider may order lab tests to check whether your thyroid functions correctly. You may also be asked to complete psychological evaluations that help your healthcare provider or mental health professional examine your symptoms, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. 

Before you go for your first appointment, consider making a list of your symptoms, depression patterns, other mental or physical health problems, major life stressors or unexpected life changes, all medications, vitamins, and supplements you take, and questions you want to be answered by a professional. 

How SAD Affects Other Mental Health Conditions

Research shows that people with bipolar disorder have an increased risk of developing SAD. Some people with bipolar depression and SAD may experience mania linked to the summer months, with depressive symptoms during the fall and winter. 

“About 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD. It tends to start in young adulthood (usually between the ages of 18 and 30). SAD affects women more than men, though researchers aren’t sure why.” — The Cleveland Clinic

Who Is Most At Risk Of Developing SAD?

Most people begin experiencing SAD symptoms during adulthood, and the risks increase with age. Few people are diagnosed with the disorder under the age of 20.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatments

  • Psychotherapy

Talk therapy can help you explore your past experiences and their link to your current emotions and behavior. Many patients find success with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help them identify harmful behaviors and thinking patterns so they can make changes toward healthier habits. 

  • Light Therapy

Phototherapy involves sitting a few feet away from a special light box that exposes you to bright light during the first hour of consciousness each day. This treatment mimics natural outdoor light and may induce brain chemistry shifts related to your mood. 

  • Antidepressant Medications

Some patients benefit from antidepressant medications to help them manage SAD symptoms. Speak to your doctor or another healthcare provider if you think medication may be a good fit for your situation. 

  • Vitamin D

Spending time outside in the sunshine can help boost your mood when you're living with SAD. Maximize the natural sunlight in your home or office, and consider taking a vitamin D supplement. 

Do You Know The Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment Options?

How Does Light Therapy Work?

Light therapy uses a unique lamp featuring white fluorescent tubes covered with a special coating to block ultraviolet rays. Phototherapy lamps are approximately 20 times brighter than standard indoor light, with an intensity of about 10,000 lux, while producing as little UV light as possible. Researchers suggest using the light box during the first hour of being awake for roughly 20 to 30 minutes. You should position the light box approximately 16 to 24 inches away from your face for maximum efficiency. Your eyes should be open during light therapy but try not to look at the light directly. Many patients begin noticing results within the first four days, though it may take up to two weeks to experience the full benefits. 

Is Light Therapy Safe?

Phototherapy is generally considered safe and is well-tolerated by most patients. However, you may want to avoid light therapy if you have diabetes, a retina condition, or are taking certain antibiotics or anti-inflammatories that make your skin more light-sensitive. This therapy is not recommended for people with bipolar disorder, as the combination of bright light therapy and antidepressants may trigger manic or hypomanic episodes. Standard light therapy side effects include eye strain, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, and irritability. 

Tips For Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Stick to your treatment plan, take your medication as directed, or use a light lamp daily to manage SAD symptoms.
  • Practice regular self-care that evolves with your needs. 
  • Plan for how you will cope if your symptoms worsen. 
  • Start treatments early and increase your chances of effectively managing your symptoms. 
  • Take a trip to a sunnier climate.

When To Reach Out For Help

If your SAD symptoms cause significant distress and interfere with your ability to function in one or more areas of your life, it may be time to seek professional help. If you don't know where to start the process, talk to your doctor or another healthcare provider about an assessment for SAD. 

How Therapy Can Help You Manage SAD Symptoms

Learning to live with seasonal affective disorder can be difficult on your own. Working with a licensed therapist online through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp can be a valuable tool in your mental health toolbox. If you are a parent seeking therapeutic help for a child from 12 to 19 with SAD, contact TeenCounseling for assistance. 

Research shows that online therapy delivers similar outcomes to treatments in the traditional setting, generally with shorter wait times and lower costs. The study shows that many patients without therapy experience had more significant and long-lasting results. Many said the physical separation from the therapist made sharing personal details easier. Others said the convenience of attending from home was a tremendous draw, as it allowed them to participate more reliably. 


Seasonal affective disorder can make it difficult to function during your affected seasons. Depression is a serious mental health condition that can alter how you think, behave, and experience emotions. The information presented in this article may offer insight into how SAD can affect you and how therapy can help you manage symptoms to minimize their impact on your life. 

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