What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Topics: Emotional Health

Some students might feel especially depressed and moody during certain times of the year. They’re drained of energy and feel like everything takes more effort than usual. The reason? They might have seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD. SAD is a type of depression that occurs during specific seasons of the year.

Typically individuals experience symptoms such as moodiness and exhaustion most days, starting around late fall to the winter, and they get better with the warmer, sunnier months. A smaller number of people suffer symptoms in the spring and summer.

Signs & Symptoms

These are some of the signs and symptoms of SAD:

• Depression
• Anxiety
• Irritability
• Loss of energy
• Changes in appetite or sleep
• Weight gain or loss
• Hopelessness
• Trouble concentrating

Although most individuals have feelings of being worn-out and as if they’re stuck in slow motion, some individuals experience symptoms of mania. In these cases, they are revved-up or intensely irritable. Other symptoms of mania include: little sleep with lots of energy, restlessness, racing thoughts and excitability.


As with most health and mental health conditions, there are a variety of causes. While experts haven’t been able to pinpoint or confirm all contributing factors, they do have several hypotheses about how SAD develops:

• A disruption in circadian rhythms, which is your internal clock for sleep and waking.
• Reduced melatonin, which also helps to regulate mood and sleep.
• Reduced serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that controls mood. Less sunlight can shrink serotonin levels, which might lead to depressed mood.
• Family history of SAD or depression might be a risk factor.

Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is typically treated with light therapy, psychotherapy, medication or a combination of these options. Light therapy, or phototherapy, is specifically used to elevate mood. Here’s how it works: You sit several feet away from a light box that produces bright light that simulates sunlight, which is then directed at your eyes for a specific amount of time. Studies have shown that this treatment is helpful for some individuals who suffer from SAD. Usually a therapist administers light therapy, but, with instructions from a therapist, you can also buy a light box, and do this in your room.

Participating in psychotherapy can also be very helpful. A therapist can work with you to spot and stop negative thoughts and behaviors that can worsen SAD and help you learn how to manage the disorder and deal with stress in healthy ways.

Sometimes, a doctor prescribes antidepressants to treat SAD symptoms, especially if the symptoms are severe.

What You Can Do

See a counselor. If you think that you’re struggling with SAD, see a counselor on or off campus to receive a proper diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with SAD, specifically follow your treatment.
Exercise. Participating in physical activities is a great way to boost your mood, especially if you’re exercising outside. Plus, exercise is an effective stress- and anxiety-reliever.
Spend time outdoors daily. Sunlight can help lift a person’s mood, even on a cloudy day. Make a point to get outside every day, whether that’s to work out, walk your dog or read a book. Pick a favorite activity, and try to do it outdoors.
Ask your therapist about investing in a light box. Some people find it helpful to use a light box every day.
Don’t skimp on self-care. Make sure to take good care of yourself, which includes eating healthfully, getting enough sleep, hanging out with good friends, doing favorite activities, avoiding drugs and watching your alcohol intake (alcohol can increase depression symptoms).