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Shining a Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

“Do you know Joe? No? Well, let me paint you a picture. Every summer, he's Mr. BBQ, grilling up a storm and spreading cheer brighter than sunshine. Come winter, though, he'd disappear faster than a snowflake in a sauna. I joked he was part bear, given his mysterious winter hibernation. But turns out, our friendly neighbourhood 'were-bear' was wrestling with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Who knew?”

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that ebbs and flows with the changing seasons, often peaking in the cold, dark winter months and easing off during the sunnier, warmer seasons of spring and summer. According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 5 percent of adults experience SAD and it is more prevalent in women, young people, and those living far from the equator.

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder typically presents symptoms similar to those of major depression, including feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, lack of energy, changes in appetite or weight, and a loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed. What makes SAD distinct is its recurring seasonal pattern.

Researchers believe that SAD is caused by disruptions to our circadian rhythms, often termed our internal biological clock, which regulates various physiological processes. These disruptions can occur due to reduced sunlight in winter, altering brain chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin that affect mood and sleep.

Diagnosing Seasonal Affective Disorder

Diagnosing SAD can be complex as its symptoms overlap with many other types of depression. Moreover, a wide range of conditions can be influenced by seasonal changes. However, a key factor is the timing of symptoms, which should align with specific seasons for at least two years. Mental health professionals use specialised diagnostic criteria and tools, such as questionnaires and clinical interviews, to diagnose SAD.

Treatment Options

While SAD can significantly affect a person's daily life, it's important to remember that effective treatments are available. The most common include light therapy (phototherapy), psychotherapy (cognitive-behavioural therapy), and medication.

  • Light Therapy: Since the lack of sunlight plays a significant role in SAD, light therapy is often a first-line treatment. Patients sit near a device called a light box, which emits bright light mimicking natural outdoor light.

  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is a type of talk therapy that can help you to manage complex emotions including SAD. Talk therapy for SAD can involve learning to identify and change negative thoughts and behaviours associated with seasonal shifts and help identify healthy ways to cope with SAD.

  • Medication: If light therapy and psychotherapy aren't effective, a healthcare provider might recommend antidepressant medications. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed.

The Road Ahead

Despite the challenges presented by Seasonal Affective Disorder, understanding and managing the condition can pave the way for improved mental health and quality of life. Remember, if you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of SAD, professional help is available. Reach out to a healthcare provider to discuss your symptoms and explore the best treatment options.

And finally, remember that you're not alone. Millions of people experience SAD to varying degrees, and there's a growing awareness and acceptance of mental health issues globally. So don't suffer in silence. Reach out, talk about it, and get the help you need to enjoy all seasons of the year.

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