Mental Health

How To Treat Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Talor Bianchini
Talor Bianchini23 Aug 2022

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), commonly known as ‘seasonal depression,’ is a type of depression related to the changing seasons. It typically begins and ends at the same time each year. There are several ways to treat symptoms of SAD, including cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressants, and socializing with others. 

Prioritizing mental health, especially as the seasons change, is vital to ensuring your overall health and wellbeing. If you are looking to speak to someone about SAD, or other conditions, Mira can help you locate a provider nearby. In addition, Mira members get access to low-cost urgent care visits, up to 80% off over 1000 different medications, and same-day lab testing. For as low as $45 a month, you’ll get all of this and more. Sign up for Mira today. 

How to Treat Symptoms of SAD

When the seasons begin to change and the days are getting shorter, you may feel seasonal affective disorder symptoms (SAD). It can affect your daily life, including your work, relationships, and everyday tasks that you need to complete. Luckily, there are many ways to cope with the symptoms of SAD. Treatments may be done with a medical provider or on your own. You can find a treatment to help you through these challenging times no matter your lifestyle. 

Below we outline some therapy options and coping strategies for SAD. If you are experiencing severe symptoms, you always talk to your health care provider about an appropriate treatment plan. 

Light Therapy

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is one option for treating symptoms of SAD. In light therapy, you are exposed to artificial light to mimic outdoor/sunlight. You do this by sitting or working next to a light therapy box, which emits a bright light. This is different from the light therapy used to treat skin conditions like psoriasis. 

This is an excellent option if you are looking for a safe treatment with few side effects. Pregnant women suffering from depression often choose this option since antidepressants can be dangerous during pregnancy. It may also increase the effectiveness of other interventions you may be trying out. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychological treatment for people with a wide range of conditions. It involves therapists and their clients working together to identify patterns of negative thoughts and practicing ways to handle them productively. Instead of focusing on past problems, CBT focuses on issues that are currently happening. 

CBT has shown great success in treating SAD. Compared to other therapy interventions, CBT typically has longer-lasting effects. You develop the tools necessary to take control of your life. It can help you gain confidence in yourself, understand other people’s motivations better, and learn to calm your mind and body. 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that your body needs to function properly. Humans typically get their required intake of vitamin D through sunlight. So in the colder and darker months, you may experience a lack of vitamin D or vitamin D deficiency. This deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of SAD. 

While one common way to get your vitamin D intake is through light therapy, there are other ways to do this. You can increase your dietary intake of vitamin D by taking a supplement or eating vitamin D-rich foods. These foods include:

  • Salmon
  • Mushrooms
  • Egg yolks
  • Fortified foods (like cereal)

Antidepressant Medications

Another standard treatment for SAD is antidepressant medications. After speaking with a healthcare provider, they may determine this is the best option for you. Antidepressants are often used in combination with other interventions as well. Sometimes it can take a while to find suitable medication for you, and there may be additional side effects. 

In general, antidepressants and anxiety medications are safe for you to take. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a black box warning on antidepressant medication labels. This is because you may experience suicidal thoughts in the first few weeks of taking the prescription. Some common antidepressants you may be prescribed include:

Social Activities 

If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, it’s essential to maintain a social life and participate in social activities. Although you may want to shut yourself out from those around you, it’s important not to fall into isolation. This may seem hard, especially in the winter months. You can get creative and find fun activities, like going on walks, hanging out at a park, or going to a sports game. If you must stay indoors, try face timing friends, joining a club, or inviting friends and family over for gatherings. 

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The final way you can treat symptoms of SAD is by making sure to get enough exercise each day. This is usually around 30-60 minutes of exercise a day, which you can do indoors or outdoors. Exercising can be combined with a lot of the above tips, which could be even more effective in treating your symptoms. By moving outside, you can also expose yourself to more sunlight. You may also consider doing classes with friends, like yoga. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression associated with starting a new season. It is commonly referred to as seasonal depression. SAD is often attributed to the winter months due to the shorter days and longer periods without sunlight. However, some people may experience SAD in the warmer months as well. 

SAD is relatively common, affecting 5 percent of adults in the United States. It is more common in women than men, but research doesn’t point to why. Many people also experience a more mild version of SAD, referred to as the “winter blues.” People with other conditions such as bipolar disorder or anxiety may be more susceptible to SAD and its symptoms. 

Fall/Winter SAD

Fall/winter SAD is more common, and people typically think of it when they hear the term “seasonal depression.” It is a common reaction to staying inside more often during the colder months of the year. For those who have bipolar disorder, this is typically a time of depression. SAD symptoms that are specific to fall/winter include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Low energy
  • Oversleeping
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal

Spring/Summer SAD

Although it’s not as common, some people experience “summer depression” during the warmer months. This type of SAD typically starts in late spring and ends once fall starts, and occurs in about 10 percent of people with SAD. People with bipolar disorder usually experience periods of mania during this time. Summer-onset SAD also has its own set of specific symptoms:

  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Violent behavior

When to Visit the Doctor

It is very common to have days when you feel down and don’t seem like yourself. However, if this feeling persists for several days in a row and into even longer periods, you may want to see a professional. If your mood is preventing you from completing everyday tasks and you don’t feel motivated to do activities that you enjoy, a doctor may help. 

You can visit a doctor online or in person. They may have you fill out questionnaires about the specific symptoms you are experiencing to determine if you have SAD. To be diagnosed, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Have symptoms of major depression (or the specific ones listed above)
  • Depressive episodes must occur during specific seasons for at least two consecutive years (although not everyone with SAD will experience symptoms each year)
  • Episodes must be more frequent than other depressive episodes a person has had in their lifetime.

If you or someone you know is in immediate distress, get help right away. You can call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741). 

SAD Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

If you think you have SAD or have recently been diagnosed, you may have additional questions about the condition. Below is some more information about SAD. 

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What causes seasonal depression?

There is no known specific cause of SAD. However, some factors may contribute to the onset of the condition, including your sleep cycle. Changes in the amount of sunlight available may disrupt your internal clock and lead to symptoms of depression. A decrease in your serotonin and melatonin levels may also lead to the development of SAD. 

Who is more prone to seasonal depression?

SAD typically occurs more in younger adults than older adults. Women are also more likely than men to have SAD. There are additional factors that may increase the likelihood of contracting SAD, including:

  • Family history
  • Living far from the equator
  • Having major depressive or bipolar disorder

Is seasonal depression genetic?

Seasonal affective disorder does not appear to have a clear inheritance pattern in families. In general, it is more likely for someone who has an immediate relative with SAD also to develop it than a random member of the population; however, 25 to 67 percent of people with SAD have a relative who has a mood or psychological disorder. There may be genetic risk factors that run in the family. 

Will insurance cover the cost of SAD treatment?

Many insurance plans cover part of therapy treatments. However, it may be associated with high copays/coinsurance, leading to high out-of-pocket costs for yourself. You should contact your insurance provider so they can outline what mental health services they usually cover. 

How long does SAD last?

Although it varies between all people, symptoms of SAD will typically last for four to five months throughout the year. People with SAD may not experience symptoms each year, however. 

Bottom Line

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depressive disorder characterized by recurring symptoms as the seasons change. It is commonly experienced during the colder and darker months. There are lots of at-home treatments for the symptoms of SAD, including vitamin D supplements, exercising, and socializing with others. You may also consider medical interventions like antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy. 

You and your healthcare provider may decide that antidepressants may be the best intervention for you and your SAD symptoms. The cost of paying for these medications can be stressful, especially without insurance. A great solution to this problem is Mira. For as low as $45 a month, members at Mira get up to 80% off over 1000 different medications. Don’t add more stress to your life; sign up for Mira today.

Talor Bianchini

Talor graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Biobehavioral Health, and minors in Spanish and Diversity & Inclusion in May of 2022. She has a passion for health equity and diversity in health. In the future, Talor hopes to work in public health policy reform to help eliminate health disparities. She enjoys reading, cooking, and listening to podcasts in her free time.