Exploring Healthy Coping Skills For Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Some people might feel happy or content for most of the year, suddenly experiencing depressive symptoms when the seasons change. For some who have this experience, it might not be clear that these symptoms could be caused by seasonal affective disorder (SAD). To understand whether you might be living with this condition, learning more about the definition of seasonal affective disorder, its common symptoms and risk factors, and the treatment options available can be helpful. 

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What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder is a depressive disorder causing depression symptoms to coincide with seasonal changes. SAD begins and fades around the same moment each year, causing an extended depressive episode that doesn't dissipate until the weather changes. For some, SAD can cause significant functional difficulties.  

Those living with SAD often experience the following symptoms during the affected season: 

  • Sadness or restlessness for most of the day every day 
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities or daily routines (anhedonia)
  • Loss of energy and persistent fatigue
  • Sleep changes (hypersomnia or insomnia) 
  • Difficulty concentrating, thinking clearly, or making decisions
  • Overwhelming hopelessness, misplaced guilt, or thoughts of worthlessness
  • Intrusive suicidal thoughts 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7.

To meet the criteria for SAD, you must exhibit the symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD) that occur 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 may occur more frequently during specific seasons. 

Fall and winter SAD

Winter-onset SAD, also called winter depression, often 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, experience weight gain due to craving and overeating carbohydrates, or become constantly tired with low energy. 

Spring and summer SAD

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

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. Other risk factors may include the following: 

  • Another mood disorder comorbid to SAD, such as bipolar 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 often 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 feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. 

Before your first appointment, consider making a list of your symptoms, depression patterns, other illnesses, major life stressors, unexpected life changes, all medications, vitamins, and supplements you take, and questions you want answered by a professional. 

How SAD affects other mental health conditions

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. 

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

Seasonal affective disorder treatments

Below are some of the most popular forms of treatment for seasonal affective disorder. 

Psychotherapy

Talk therapy may help you explore your past experiences and their link to your current emotions and behavior. Some individuals succeed with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help them identify harmful behaviors and thinking patterns and make positive changes. However, there are over 400 therapeutic modalities to choose from.  

Light therapy

Phototherapy involves sitting a few feet away from a special lightbox 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 individuals benefit from antidepressant medications to help them manage SAD symptoms temporarily. Speak to your doctor before starting, changing, or stopping any medication or medical treatment.  

Vitamin D

Spending time outside in the sunshine may boost your mood when living with SAD. Maximize the natural sunlight in your home or office, and consider taking a vitamin D supplement, as well. 

Other coping mechanisms

Below are a few lifestyle changes and self-care activities you can try to reduce seasonal affective disorder symptoms: 

  • Stick to your treatment plan, take 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.
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How does light therapy work?

Light therapy uses a unique lamp called a lightbox with 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. Position the lightbox 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. Some clients may 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 considered safe and is well-tolerated by many. However, avoid light therapy before talking to a doctor if you have diabetes, a retina condition, or are taking certain antibiotics or anti-inflammatories that make your skin more light-sensitive. 

This therapy may not be recommended for people with bipolar disorder, as the combination of bright light therapy and antidepressants may incite manic or hypomanic episodes. Standard light therapy side effects include eye strain, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, and irritability. 

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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 beneficial to seek professional support. If you don't know where to start the process, talk to your doctor or another healthcare provider about an assessment for SAD. 

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 valuable, as you can seek therapy without leaving home. In addition, online therapy allows clients to choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions, which may benefit those who don't want their therapist to see their face. 

Research shows that online therapy delivers similar outcomes to treatments in the traditional setting, often offering shorter wait times and lower costs. The study shows that some clients without therapy experience had more significant and long-lasting results. Some reported the physical separation from the therapist made discussing personal details easier. Others said the convenience of attending from home was a tremendous draw, allowing them to participate more reliably. 

Takeaway

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. Understanding how SAD can affect you and how therapy may help you manage symptoms to minimize their impact on your life can be essential. Consider contacting a therapist online or in your area to get started. You're not alone, and treatment is available.
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