S.A.D. “Seasonal Affective Disorder”


Seasonal Affective Disorder”

Contributed by Jim Mockaitis, LPC

During these winter months of shorter darker days, many people experience ‘the blues’.  This is not uncommon. However, despite what well meaning friends, coworkers and family members may advise, “Seasonal Affective Disorder” is not the same as ‘the blues’. It is a real mental health disorder, and is referenced as such in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).  People who have struggled with S.A.D. for years, are often very relieved to get this validation that their suffering isn’t something they need to be ashamed of because they’re “not trying hard enough”, or that they can “just get over it.” The intent of this month’s blog is to shed some light on this disorder, and offer some suggestions on things you or someone you care about can do to improve their quality of life.

·         What is S.A.D.?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, often referred to by the acronym S.A.D., is a mood disorder that brings episodes of depression associated with the seasonal variation of light.  Evidence indicates that the lack of sunlight can upset the biological rhythms (circadian rhythms), of our bodies. If our sleep-wake cycle is disturbed for prolonged periods of time, it can cause problems with the brain chemical serotonin, which affects mood.

·         What are the symptoms and how is it similar to, yet different from depression?

While depression and S.A.D. share many of the same characteristics, it is the cyclical nature of this disorder that makes it different from depression.  While it is estimated that 14% of us in northern climates experience “the winter blues”, only 6% of the U.S. population are estimated to have S.A.D.  Most people with S.A.D.  function fine for good portions of the year, but most typically, once the darker colder months hit, they find themselves struggling with many of the following depression symptoms.  

·         Sad, grumpy, moody, anxious, irritable

·         Loss of interest in usual activities

·         Sleep more and feel drowsy during the day.

·         Difficulty concentrating.

·         Heavy feeling in the arms or legs

·         Less energy…fatique

·         Sensitivity to social rejection….avoiding interaction…not wanting to go out.

When a doctor or mental health provider makes a diagnosis for “Seasonal Affective Disorder”, the following questions are especially pertinent:

·         Have you been depressed during the same season and gotten better when seasons change for at least 2yrs in a row?

·         Do you tend to be more hungry, particularly craving carbohydrates (breads, pastas, sweets)?

·         Have you gained weight? (weight loss more common with other forms of depression)

·         Do you have a close relative who has had S.A.D.? 


*Interestingly, though most people with S.A.D. typically struggle during the darkest months of Jan/ Feb, there is a small percentage of people who actually have a reverse effect and tend not to adjust well to the longer days of summer.  This tends to confirm researchers belief that this disorder is directly related to one’s inability to successfully adjust…navigate the seasons.  


·         S.A.D. is  four times more common in women, particularly younger women, than men.

·         Although some children and teenagers get SAD, it usually doesn’t start in people younger than age 20. Your chance of getting SAD goes down as you get older, particularly after age 55.

·         Most common in the northern Hemisphere, (seven times more common in Washington state than in Florida.)


·         See your doctor or mental health professional for a diagnosis.

·         Often times an anti-depressants may be suggested.  If so, take as directed and then consult your doctor to taper off when you’re ready. Many of these medications need to build up over time.

COUNSELING:  This can offer tremendous support and expand one’s understanding of this disorder and how to cope effectively.

·         LIGHT THERAPY…. This treatment has an 80% success rate. There are two kinds of light therapy. The lamps are available online or locally. The light is at least 10 times the intensity of home or office lighting. (In Norway they have ‘light lounges’ where people can gather.)

BRIGHT LIGHT Therapy:  Sit in front of a light box for 30min or more …most effective in the morning. DAWN SIMULATION or BROAD SPECTRUM LIGHT Therapy:  A dim light goes on in the morning while you sleep and gets brighter over time.

·         Stick with it….most people using light therapy begin to feel better within a week or two.

·         Exercise….sunlight outside Vitamin D

Some of the things I do with my clients at Juniper Mountain Counseling:

·         Continuing some regular therapy throughout the year can be helpful in developing ‘proactive’ strategies for S.A.D., so that one doesn’t find themselves slipping into deep depression by being ‘caught off guard’.  This can be once monthly, every six weeks in the brighter months, and then even weekly as the symptoms tend to increase.

·         Reframing/ Reconceptualizing”:  the association with shorter days…darkness.  “It doesn’t have to always be associated with a slowing down or sad feeling.  It can also be thought of as a “cozy” time of year.  A time when we can kick back a bit more and reflect on our year, and start being proactive in setting new goals, making plans, looking ahead…..doing research on putting ourselves in another place.  Planning for a project we’ll take on in the Spring or Summer, etc. 

·         Turn the lights up more, listen to upbeat music, take a walk, take a class, reconnect.

·         S.A.D.  and Depression/ Anxiety Support Groups at Juniper Mt. Counseling:  541-617-0543.



www.apa.org  (American Psychological Association)

www.webmd.com (Web MD)

www.aafp.org (American Family Physician)

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth (US National Library of Medicine)

www.nami.org (National Alliance Mental Illness)


Leave a Reply