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What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

If you have the winter blahs, they might be more than just a personality quirk. They may well be a specific sub-type of depression. According to the well-known psychiatrist who coined the phrase in 1984, they could be a legitimate psychiatric disorder known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), identifies SAD as an emotional disorder that’s at its peak during a specific season, and then fades or stops altogether after the season. The Mayo Clinic calls it “a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons.” Statistics show  major SAD affects 6% of the U.S. population, while minor SAD affects 14%. Summer SAD does exist, but this article is about winter SAD.

SAD: Who’s at Risk?

Check this list to see if you’re in any of following high-risk SAD categories:

  • Gender. SAD is more prevalent in females than in males, but for males the symptoms can be more extreme.
  • Age. Young people tend to have SAD more than older people.
  • Family. If anyone in your family has SAD or another form of depression, you’re more likely to develop the disorder.
  • Emotional disorders. People with bipolar disorder or depression are more likely to have SAD.
  • Your distance from the equator – North or South – seems to correlate with your likelihood of developing SAD.

If you fall into any of those categories, then the next step is to see if you have any of the classic symptoms of SAD.

SAD: What to Look For

People with SAD often don’t realize they have a diagnosable emotional disorder. They think everyone gets a little bummed out during the winter, then feel better when springtime rolls around, the weather warms up, and they get to break out the shorts and t-shirts.

But that’s not the case.

For some people it’s the opposite: they thrive in the cold and don’t like the warm months much at all. This post is not for those people. This post is for those of you who dread the days when it’s mostly dark by 5pm and cold all the time.

If you’re one of those people, use this list to find out if your winter blahs are more than just a personal distaste for cold weather. When winter rolls around, people with SAD:

  • Feel more irritable
  • Feel tired or lethargic, compared to other seasons
  • Have more relationship issues at home or at work
  • Become more to things that typically don’t bother them
  • Sleep more than usual
  • Have major appetite changes
  • Crave foods they don’t the rest of the year
  • Gain weight

The Winter Holidays and SAD

The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is supposed to be the best time of the year. It’s all about family, food, vacations, and fun. Holiday cheer is the theme. Happiness is expected. However, for people prone to depression, the holidays can be the opposite of fun. They can be a minefield of powerful emotions. Parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins often have an uncanny knack for saying exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. They may mean well, but an offhand comment about how clothes fit or a little bit of weight gain can trigger a tailspin.

And the hardest thing about it: you’re not supposed to disrupt the holiday cheer.

You’re not supposed to tell your half-drunk uncle how mean he sounds – not in the middle of Christmas dinner. Your parents don’t want you to call them out on being judgmental about your choice of friends or how you spend your time – not in front of company.

Don’t make waves. Act nice. Grin and bear it.

So you do just that. Then you retreat to whatever safe place you can find, curl up into a ball, and wish for a time travel device to fast-forward past December. Preferably all the way to March, or whenever the weather gets better where you live.

The thing is, you can’t do that.

But you can take proactive steps to make sure the one-two punch of cold, dark days and family time doesn’t get you down.

Strategies for Avoiding SAD

The most common methods for treating SAD are a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Light Therapy, and medication. But if this article is the first time you’ve read about SAD, you may need things to do right away – like literally today – that can help you manage the symptoms.

  1. Get Some Exercise: Working out is one of the simplest things you can do to keep your mood up and the winter blues away. Exercise relieves stress, keeps you strong, and feels great. And if one thing you’re after is a break from family, it’s an excellent way to find some me time in the midst of all the planned holiday festivities.
  2. Get Outside: They have a saying in Finland: there is no such thing as bad weather – there’s only bad clothes. Bundle up and go outside. Take a walk in your neighborhood. Go to a park. Go window shopping. Whatever it takes to escape the house, do it. While some people love a dark and cozy living room in mid-December, it might be the thing that makes you want to jump out of your skin. Don’t do that. Find a way to get some fresh air or walk in the woods. And if you can do that near water – a lake, pond, creek, or the ocean – even better.
  3. Get Together With Friends: There’s a good chance your friends are looking for an excuse to get out of the house, too. It doesn’t have to be a dinner or a lunch. Invite them on that walk you’re planning. Hop in the car a drive a few miles, then go for a nice hike in a state park. They may have a great idea for a fun outdoor activity. But you’ll never know unless you give them a call and say, “Hey, I’ve had enough of the fam for today. You busy?”
  4. Sunlight: Mental health professionals say the main cause of winter SAD is lack of sunlight. That’s an easy fix. First, make sure you act on our first three suggestions. Next, avoid crawling into bed and drawing the blinds. Do the opposite. Open them up. Let the sun shine in, even if you’re sitting on your bed Netflixing. It will make a difference.
  5. Get Outta Town: You may think it’s too late to travel. And it may well be too late for a vacation to the Caribbean. Or, if you’re a teenager, making your own vacation plans aren’t possible anyway. But you can still go for a day trip. Look at it this way: a two-hour round-trip with a three- or four- hour activity is totally worth it. The goal of your mini-vacay can be anything you like. Nature time, a cool restaurant in a different town, or some random almost-local attraction you’ve always wanted to check out. Be creative. Enlist friends and go for it.

Take Care of Yourself

There are two main things we want you to learn from this article. First, SAD is a real thing. If you dread winter and holiday time, it’s worth considering the idea you might have this form of depression. Although SAD is more common in people already diagnosed with depression or other mood disorders, it’s not exclusive to them. You can have SAD even if you have no other emotional issues. Second, there are practical steps you can take to manage your symptoms. If they’re severe, we strongly recommend seeking professional help in the form of a therapist or psychiatrist. If they’re not, try one or all of the tips above – they really do work. A walk in the park with a good friend may not cure your SAD long-term, but it sure can make a big difference.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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