Seasonal Affective Disorder


Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is used to describe a seasonal depression that starts in one season, typically fall or winter, and continues until spring or summer. The term is not used to describe the common “winter blahs,” or the occasional feelings of sadness, but a long-lasting seasonal depression, and it is classified in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, edition IV), under “Major Depression,” not mood disorders. This is a symptom used to describe people who have normal mental health throughout the remaining time of the year, but have difficulty throughout winter. For the Illinois and Wisconsin area, it can start in mid-November, and continue until mid-April. If symptoms of depression occur in summer, it is typically described as reverse seasonal affective disorder.

The causes of SAD are not fully understood, but, thanks to the research available over the past 30 years, it is thought to be linked to hormonal levels, temperature changes, and brain chemical imbalances, particularly Serotonin. The reduced level of sunlight available in the winter months may confuse the body’s normal circadian rhythms (the patterns associated with wake time and sleep time).

Symptoms include increased depressed mood or sadness, increased anxiety, increased need for sleep, afternoon tiredness, loss of energy, social withdrawal, feelings of hopelessness, lack of interest in things once enjoyed, and change in appetite. If severe, SAD could lead to suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Treatment for SAD includes Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), light therapy, dawn simulation, negative air ionization, anti-depressant medication and carefully-timed supplementation of the hormone Melatonin. As always, regular exercise, regulated sleep, and a healthy diet help to decrease any mood swings, depression and anxiety.

Seeking counseling, specifically CBT, is always helpful if one is struggling with any type of Depression. A licensed, trained counselor can help people express their emotions, think of their lives in new ways, and re-consider their deeply-held beliefs about themselves, their situation, and others.

Light-box therapy seems to be one of the most effective non-medication treatments of SAD. A bright light, with 10,000 lux, is used in the morning, to simulate the brightness of the sun during summer months.

Dawn simulation is a specific light that starts to illuminate 30 minutes to 2 hours before wake time, and slowly brightens. The brain registers the light as the appropriate time to wake up, and may help regulate sleep and wake times.

If you or someone you know has Seasonal Affective Disorder, or any type of Depression, please seek help from a licensed counselor, or talk to your doctor for more information

anxiety resources

helpful websites

  • TroubledWith: Stress
    Excellent collection of resources on dealing with anxiety disorders, as well as when and how to seek treatment.
  • Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA)
    National, non-profit membership organization dedicated to informing the public, healthcare professionals and legislators about anxiety disorders, promote the early diagnosis, treatment and cure of anxiety disorders, and improve the lives of the people who suffer from them.
  • Freedom From Fear
    National not-for-profit mental health advocacy association developed to impact, in a positive way, the lives of all those affected by anxiety, depressive and related disorders through advocacy, education, research and community support.