Seasonal Affective Disorder: It’s Not Just Winter Blues

Not everyone dreads the start of the winter season every year (hello, ice hockey lovers and ski bums). But life naturally runs at a slower pace in winter. Days get shorter and shorter, the warmth of the sun gets scarce, and most of us retreat into our cocoons. We are snuggled in our blankets in front of the TV, living the days in a way that can easily be called the human version of hibernating. 

Some of these habits are universal and can be termed winter blues. However, if you have been resenting going out, and feel yourself getting irritated, grumpy, and unmotivated in a way that hinders your daily life, maybe there is something more at play. 

Yes. This having difficulty waking up during winter, experiencing extreme daytime fatigue, and much more has a name – seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It is a type of depression related to the amount of daylight one is exposed to. Let’s understand seasonal affective disorder, its symptoms, and available treatment options.

Old women looking aways from camera

What is seasonal affective disorder? 

The seasonal affective disorder is a type of depressive disorder that comes and goes with seasons. The condition was first given a name by Dr. N Rosenthal. The typical time for the onset of symptoms is around late fall or early winter when days start getting shorter, and the temperature goes down. The symptoms can continue throughout winter and even up to spring. 

The symptoms can fluctuate in intensity every year. Therefore, some years might have less-intensity symptoms than others, while symptoms might even be absent in some. The summer season of all years is generally symptom-free. However, a summer or spring version of the disorder also exists called reverse SAD.

Symptoms of SAD

If you notice that your sleep patterns get disrupted, your productivity or energy level goes down, you have a grumpy mood throughout winter, and you might be suffering from SAD. As per the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual-V (DSM-V), a person must experience at least two years of seasonal depressive episodes to be diagnosed with SAD.

The most common symptoms of SAD include:

  • fatigue,
  • low-energy,
  • increased appetite,
  • oversleeping,
  • craving carbohydrates,
  • weight gain, 
  • irritability,
  • heavy feeling in arms and legs, etc.

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Human brains evolved on a planet that continuously rotated around the sun. During the process of evolution, the brain used light and dark patterns to align our biological and behavioral functions with it. This alignment is called the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is highly crucial for our mental health. 

Seasonal affective disorder is caused by a disturbance in the normal circadian rhythm of a person. Insufficient exposure to sunlight is the fundamental cause of this disturbance. 

Sunlight triggers specific cells in the human eye. These cells send a signal to our brain to produce serotonin. Serotonin is generally called the happiness hormone. It gives rise to feelings of pleasure and happiness. On the other hand, at night, the absence of sunlight triggers the creation of melatonin which is responsible for the drowsiness we feel at the end of the day.

During winter, due to shorter days and people spending most of their time indoors, this circadian rhythm gets disrupted, leading to a decrease in serotonin levels. And as per a study by A Gupta and team, low serotonin levels are related to SAD.

Read more: What Mental Health Needs Is More Sunlight.

Treatment Options

The seasonal affective disorder is a treatable condition and responds well to several treatments. 

1. Light Therapy

Light therapy is a form of therapy where a device gives off bright white light. The patient is exposed to light at several times of the day as per the advice of the professionals. The general response to light therapy shows up in a week. However, some people might even take up to four weeks to show any response. 

2. Psychotherapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is also considered an effective treatment for SAD. It is even more effective when used with light therapy. CBT includes identifying and addressing negative thought patterns that give rise to SAD symptoms and eventually replacing them with positive ones.

Read more: Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction.


Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a classified depressive disorder and begins around the winter season. It is generally caused by the lack of sunlight exposure during the winter season. However, with effective treatment and care, the disorder is a treatable condition, and people can successfully recover from it.

Therapy is a powerful tool for dealing with SAD. Access to therapy is more convenient and affordable with the advent of online therapy platforms. To learn about the most affordable online therapy platforms, click here.

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