Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) – It’s a real thing!

Diane Herbert, MSS, LSW, CDE

Many of us experience some amount of disruption to our regular routines as the days get shorter and the weather gets colder. Let’s face it, as the sun starts to go down at 3pm and the mercury drops below freezing – many of us seem to partially hibernate. This change to our routine can make us want to eat more than usual, head to bed at 6pm and decide to skip the frosty walk with the dog. All of these changes can influence our mood and well and make us a bit cranky.

If your holiday season doesn’t seem particularly jolly, there may be a good reason… and an answer.


For about 6% of the US population (more frequent in women than men), our winter times blues are actually a form of clinical depression known as Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD). SAD is triggered by the shorter days and weakened strength of sun and symptoms disappear as the season changes. The further away from the equator that you live, the greater the chance that you will experience SAD. Like other forms of depression, it’s important that you are able to recognize the symptoms and take proactive steps to treat. Even though SAD does go away on it’s own as the days get longer – it can have a significant negative impact on your life during the winter months. And of course winter comes again next year.

How Do You Know if You Have SAD? What are the Common Symptoms?

  • Weight gain. Cravings for sweet and starchy foods — comfort foods — lead to excess weight.
    Daytime fatigue. People with SAD are tired and have less energy during the day. They may also find themselves sleeping a lot, but getting no relief from their fatigue.
  • Increased irritability and anxiety. People with SAD worry more than others about everyday events, and they can also become easily irritated. In addition, they can have trouble concentrating.
  • Social withdrawal. Those with SAD typically prefer to be alone: They shun the company of friends and family and don’t participate in activities they normally enjoy. Their social behavior is often hard to understand as they give up activities they would normally enjoy.
  • Physical discomfort. Some people have symptoms such as headaches or heavy feeling in arms & legs.
  • Oversleeping. People with SAD may sleep more than what’s normal for them during the winter months, yet they’ll still feel tired and have little energy. And in the summer months, people who suffer from SAD may have the opposite problem: insomnia.
  • Thoughts of self-harm. Some people can be so depressed that they have frequent thoughts of self-harm, including suicide.

How Do You Treat SAD?

There are many effective treatments for SAD and your health care professional can help you determine which one or combination would be best for you. Here are proven treatment methods for SAD (and the winter blues in general):

  • Light therapy – using specially designed lights for 30+ minutes a day
  • Dawn simulators – using a dawn simulator for the last 30 minutes before sleeping to mimic the sunrises before/while you rise
  • Exercise– maintaining a regular fitness routine keeps the “happy hormones” flowing, shoot for at least 30 minutes a day 5 days a week
  • Vacation – even a brief break to a warm and sunny spot
  • Eating well – load up on fresh fruits, vegetables and good fats (nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut oil) to help minimize cravings for high fat/high carb foods
  • Medication – severe cases of SAD may be best treated with anti-depression medications

Skiing, snow angels, chestnuts roasting, that unique silence that follows a heavy snow, the holidays – there are many reasons to take steps to treat SAD so that you can get back to feeling like yourself and embrace the joy of the winter season – even if you still route for the groundhog to see his shadow!

If you find yourself struggling this time of year (or any time of year), please reach out to your healthcare team, or feel free to schedule some time with me over the phone or in person. I am available to work with IDS clients on a variety of mental health issues, including stress management, anxiety, depression, burnout, and disordered eating.

Call the office (610-642-6055) for more information or to set up an appointment.