What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

As the days grow shorter and colder many people find themselves feeling out-of-sorts, blue or down.  For many, this is a normal reaction to shifting seasons.  For some people, these feelings may run very deep and/or persist for a long period of time.  Additional signs of SAD include:

  • symptoms that go into remission during the spring or summer
  • irritability in fall and winter months
  • eating much more or much less in fall and winter months (especially more carbohydrates)
  • sleeping much more or much less  in fall and winter months
  • heavy-feeling arms and legs
  • seasonally dependent weight gain

This may relate to a biological reaction to the change in season, in which the body responds to the lower levels of light with changes in brain chemistry (particularly seratonin and melatonin). If this is the case for you, you may respond well to light therapy.

At the same time, many people have other reasons for having deep emotional reactions that are connected to the seasons.  If you have suffered a significant loss or trauma at this time of year, the changing of the seasons can bring up many of those feelings.  This is known as an "anniversary reaction".  This emotion-based response to the changing of the seasons may even be outside of your awareness.

Matters  are complicated by the fact that anniversary reactions result in changes in seratonin and other neurotransmitters, making it difficult if not impossible to distinguish between a response that is rooted in physiology and one that is rooted in emotions.  The best course of action in this case is to consider light therapy combined with psychotherapy.

No matter the cause or causes of SAD, other helpful tips include:

  • Take frequent walks without sunglasses (light needs to hit the retina of your eye in order for the brain to register its presence)
  • Allow as much natural light into your home as possible (trim hedges, pull back drapes)
  • Paint rooms a light color (to reflect light)
  • Consider shifting sleep routines towards earlier waking
  • Consider light therapy 
  • Consider psychotherapy
  • Increase social contact if possible
  • Avoid alcohol (it is a depressant) and other drugs
  • Maintain healthy routines surrounding sleep and food