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The Surprising Facts about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

The Surprising Facts about Seasonal Affective DisorderA cup of hot chocolate. A funny movie. A snowball fight. These are all things that can cure the winter blues. It’s easy to feel gloomy or un-energetic on dark and windy winter days. But it’s often equally as easy to pick yourself with a little physical exercise or a happy movie.

But what if the things that normally make you feel better don’t help?

If you find yourself feeling unhappy for days at a time or losing interest in the activities you once took pleasure in, you may be one of the millions of Americans who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a specific type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. Most people experience SAD during the fall and winter, though occasionally some suffer SAD episodes during the spring and summer. Symptoms may start out mild and worsen as the season progresses. SAD can be debilitating, and can have a destructive effect on sufferers’ lives.

Experts believe that SAD develops primarily due to lack of exposure to regular amounts of sunlight. SAD sufferers may be particularly sensitive to light, so the lack of exposure during winter months typically has a greater effect on them. There may also be a genetic aspect to the disorder — it’s often found in families with a history of SAD, alcohol abuse, or depression.

While cases of SAD have been reported all over the world, the disorder occurs most commonly in northern climates with shorter winter days and less exposure to sunlight. SAD appears more frequently in women, with females making up 60 to 90 percent of SAD sufferers. In America, more than 10 million people are affected by SAD.

Individuals with SAD often experience the following symptoms:

  • Feelings of sadness, irritability, or anxiety
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  • Apathy
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Loss of interest in being around others
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

Unlike regular depression or the winter blues, SAD begins and ends at the same time every year. To be diagnosed with SAD, an individual must experience these episodes at least two years in a row.

Though SAD most commonly occurs during fall and winter months, it’s important to note that some people experience episodes in the spring and summer. Many of the symptoms — such as depression and anxiety — are the same in both cases. However, while winter SAD often involves weight gain and increased appetite, summer SAD frequently includes weight loss and decreased appetite. In addition, many people who experience SAD in the summer report an increased sex drive.

To combat SAD, many doctors prescribe light therapy, also known as phototherapy. With this treatment, patients are exposed to natural or artificial light on a daily basis. The vast majority of SAD patients have reported finding light therapy helpful in managing the disorder, and witness benefits within four days of starting the treatment.

Therapy also can be useful in battling SAD, as are certain antidepressant medications. In past cases, experts have recommended that sufferers relocate to a sunnier climate.

In addition to medical attention, a healthy diet and exercise routine is key for recovery. Maintaining a regular day-to-day and sleep schedule also is important in fighting the disorder.

Every year, hundreds of SAD sufferers go undiagnosed and untreated. Many feel too ashamed to seek medical help, worrying that they may be accused of being lazy or melodramatic. They fear the social stigma of having a condition that some believe is a farce and could be treated with a mere “attitude adjustment.”

Though society has previously dismissed it as being fake or less severe than it is, SAD is a serious illness that medical professionals recognize as a legitimate mental disorder. If you believe you are suffering from SAD, don’t struggle alone. Speak to your doctor as soon as possible.

The Surprising Facts about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Jesse Viner, MD

Jesse Viner, MD, Executive Medical Director of Yellowbrick, is a recognized expert in the treatment of eating disorders, difficulties resulting from trauma and abuse, and bipolar disorder. Dr. Viner has three decades of experience applying the knowledge of psychiatry and psychoanalysis to the challenge of creating meaningful and pragmatically effective treatment programs. Dr. Viner has served as Director of Adult Psychiatry Inpatient Services for Northwestern University Medical School; Medical Director of Four Winds Chicago and Director of University Behavioral Health. He is on the faculty of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Dr. Viner is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

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APA Reference
Viner, J. (2018). The Surprising Facts about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Dec 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.