What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and how can it be managed?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression brought on by a change in the seasons. Commonly triggered during the autumn or winter months when the days become shorter, the condition causes low mood and can be very debilitating.

The reduction in the amount of sunlight during this time can negatively affect chemicals in the brain that control mood, but there are also other potential causes. The feelings experienced usually disappear when winter ends and springtime brings more daylight hours.

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Although SAD isn’t definitively understood, the following are some of the theories as to its cause:

Change in the biological clock

When the days become shorter and we have less exposure to sunlight it can adversely affect our biological clock, which modulates our mood. Dark mornings and evenings can further increase anxious or negative feelings.

Too much melatonin

If lower exposure to sunlight during autumn and winter increases melatonin levels, it can make people want to sleep more and generally cause them to feel sluggish.

Insufficient serotonin

Similarly, lack of sunlight can lower serotonin levels, which is a brain chemical that helps to regulate sleeping and waking hours. Lowered serotonin can negatively affect mood and appetite, and either cause or contribute to the symptoms of SAD.

People who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder don’t typically suffer from consistently low mood during the other seasons, so what are some of the symptoms, and how can they be managed?

What are the typical symptoms of SAD?

Tiredness and lack of interest in exercise and daily life are typical symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, to the extent that the sufferer sleeps considerably more than they would during spring and summer.

SAD can affect jobs and relationships, as well as the ability to deal effectively with life issues such as money and physical health. Overeating may also be a sign of the disorder, which with lack of exercise and general feelings of lethargy, can lead to further health problems.

Other symptoms include:

  • Craving sugary foods
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Problems focusing on work
  • Poor decision making
  • Withdrawal from usual social life

How can Seasonal Affective Disorder be managed?

Light therapy

Light therapy using a light box that mimics daylight has been known to help people with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Daylight bulbs can be used with lamps and ceiling lights around the home or office to provide an environment closer to normal daylight. The premise is that the light encourages the production of serotonin and reduces melatonin so mood improves and sleep cycles regulate.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

This is a type of talking therapy that addresses negative patterns in the way people think and then aims to change how they behave in response to their thinking. Relaxation or distraction techniques can also be learned, and potentially help to manage the symptoms of SAD as they arise.


In severe cases of SAD antidepressants might be prescribed by a doctor, either as a standalone treatment or alongside light therapy.

Spending more time outside

Getting outside during the daylight hours of autumn and winter can help people manage the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Getting enough exercise is also known to lift low mood and improve mental well-being.

According to NHS Inform, Seasonal Affective Disorder affects around two million people in the UK – this is a significant number whose normal lives are diminished during the darker months. However, there are medical and self-help therapies available that may assist in managing the symptoms until the longer days of spring return.

Article written by Sharon McDougall of Scotland Debt Solutions, part of Begbies Traynor Group, is a DAS-approved Money Adviser with vast experience in providing debt advisory support to individuals in Scotland.

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