What is Seasonal Affective Disorder? How Can You Beat it?

The American Family Physician writes that up to 6% of people experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD). But, up to 20% of people have a mild form of it. SAD, or winter depression, can make a person who is normally content with their life spiral out of control. Thus, a person with a substance use disorder can be more at risk for a psychiatric disorder with the threat of SAD. 

What is seasonal affective disorder is imperative to know to mitigate the effects of winter depression. Knowing what it is can help those suffering from a substance use disorder know how to beat season affect disorder. Sana Lake Acute Detox can help.  

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder ?

You might be wondering what is seasonal affective disorder and can it affect me? SAD is a form of depression that occurs on a seasonal basis. It’s known as winter depression because it typically happens when it gets darker out quicker. Daylight hours shorten during fall and winter. That’s why SAD is commonly referred to as winter depression. 

On the other hand, some people experience it during summer months. This type of SAD is aptly referred to as summer-pattern SAD or summer depression. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), SAD is identified as a Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Basics behind what is seasonal affective disorder: 

  • Occurs primarily in January and February in the United States 
  • Happens to around 5% of American adults 
  • It lasts around 40% of the year 
  • It’s linked to a biochemical imbalance 
  • Not every person suffering from SAD experiences symptoms every year 
  • It’s more common in people with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder 

Although the symptoms are similar to major depressive disorder, the treatment is different because of where it stems from. The APA writes that SAD partially stems from the fact that humans work on a biological clock, known as a circadian rhythm. The change in seasons and lack of sunlight can stress out their circadian rhythm. 

On the other hand, major depressive disorder doesn’t have a single cause. It can happen due to stressful events in life, a brain injury, or a chemical imbalance. People react to stress differently, just as SAD doesn’t affect all people. Though, both forms of depression look similar to each other. Being sad is a normal part of life, but it shouldn’t last for months, unhinge a person’s life, and come about seasonally like clockwork. Knowing the symptoms of SAD can help get diagnosed quicker. 

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder in Terms of Symptoms? 

When wondering about what is seasonal affective disorder in terms of symptoms, it’s similar to those of major depressive disorder. As mentioned before, the difference is that it lasts around four to five months out of the year. A person will be diagnosed with SAD if it occurs for over two years. Yet, it’s tough to pin down signs and symptoms of SAD because it doesn’t happen every year for some people. 

NIMH writes that the symptoms of summer-pattern SAD and winter-pattern SAD differ. They also write that the signs of this disorder are different per individual. Hence, it can be difficult for doctors to diagnose a patient with SAD. A report by NIMH writes that depression is often misdiagnosed. Around 70.6% of participants received the wrong diagnosis. 

There are tell-tale signs of SAD despite this: 

  • Hypersomnia (oversleeping) 
  • Craving carbs 
  • Overeating 
  • Weight gain 
  • Weight loss (more typical for summer depression)
  • Becoming excessively introverted 
  • Insomnia 
  • Anxiety 
  • Restlessness 
  • Increased agitation 

These symptoms can separate other mood disorders from SAD. Though, there is some overlap. The biggest indicator is when the mood change happens. Scientists believe that stressors that can lead to major depressive disorder may increase chances of SAD. This may be why there is a large overlap between the two. 

Symptoms of major depression and SAD include: 

  • Feeling sad almost all the time 
  • Lost interest in hobbies 
  • Wanting too overeat or to not eat at all 
  • Irregular sleep patterns 
  • Lack of energy 
  • Difficulty maintaining concentration 
  • Wanting to be dead 

It’s easy to downplay the danger of SAD. But suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the United States in 2018. It takes the lead over homicides (48,344 deaths versus 18,830) and claimed 48,000 lives in 2018 alone. Undiagnosed SAD can lead to suicidal ideation, especially with a substance dependency. 

What Causes SAD Symptoms?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), scientists don’t understand what causes seasonal affective disorder in full. Scientists think that symptoms of this disorder come about because of low levels of the chemical, serotonin. Regular levels of sunlight supposedly regulate this brain chemical which makes people feel relaxed and content. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Another factor that leads to symptoms of SAD is too much melatonin. Melatonin is another brain chemical that tells the brain and body to relax. Though, its main role is letting the body know it’s time to go to bed. Human’s circadian rhythm revolves around the light-dark circle. The pineal gland produces melatonin when it’s dark out, which makes a person feel tired. 

Scientists also think a vitamin D deficiency can lead to SAD symptoms. NIMH states that serotonin regulation has to do with normal levels of vitamin D. The sun is a major source of this vitamin. A healthy diet and supplements provide it as well. 

Certain Areas Should Know What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder 

People should be aware of SAD if they live in a country farther away from the equator. For example, a person living in Alaska should worry more about SAD than a person living in Florida. The further north a person lives in Alaska, the darker it gets on a daily basis. A town in Alaska, called Barrow, experiences 67 days of straight darkness throughout the year. 

The Washington Post broke down 30 years of sunlight data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unsurprisingly, states closer to the equator like southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico had the most sunlight per day. on the other hand, northern states experienced less sunshine. 

People in these states should be more concerned about SAD than others: 

  • Maine 
  • Vermont 
  • New York 
  • New Hampshire 
  • Minnesota 
  • Michigan 
  • Wisconsin 
  • Pennsylvania 

Honorable mentions for lack of sunshine go to: 

  • Washington 
  • Idaho 
  • Montana 
  • North Dakota 
  • Ohio 

That said, SAD can affect anyone even if they live in a sunny state. A state’s landscape has to do with how much daylight it receives, too.  Areas where mountains overcast cities are at a disadvantage. The article notes that citizens on the coast will see more daylight than others. A vacation to a sunnier place, like Key West, isn’t a remedy for SAD. But it certainly couldn’t hurt. 

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder for Men Versus Women  

More women than men suffer from SAD. The journal, Archives of Women’s Mental Health, writes that women experience SAD differently. They were more likely to have a thyroid issue and suffer from mood swings. Also, they reported overeating more than men. Though, they also report that the symptoms were not too different in regards to either gender. 

How To Beat Season Affect Disorder

It can be tough to figure out how to beat season affect disorder alone. Unfortunately, a substance use disorder and SAD can make treatment more difficult. Luckily, most detox and treatment centers are well-versed in dealing with a dual diagnosis. A dual diagnosis, or co-occurring disorder, is when a person suffers from a mental illness and substance use disorder simultaneously. 


Treating SAD without treating a substance use disorder can hinder recovery. That’s why detox is an important part of recovery. A person with this kind of dual diagnosis must go through a detox program before anything. Trained clinicians will help members purge the body of toxins from substance use. Then, they can look into treatment options. 

The Four Main Methods to Relieve SAD Symptoms 

  1. Talk therapy – This is also known as psychotherapy. There is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) specifically for SAD. NIMH writes that it, ” …is typically conducted in two weekly group sessions for 6 weeks and focuses on replacing negative thoughts related to the winter season (e.g., about the darkness of winter) with more positive thoughts.” CBT may be more effective in the long-term. 
  2. Antidepressants – Another name for antidepressants is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They can help regulate an individual’s serotonin levels.
  3. Vitamin D – Using vitamin D for SAD has a checkered history. Yet, nutritional supplements may aid recovery. 
  4. Light therapy – This is a main form of treatment. Traditionally, people will use a light box, which is 20 times brighter than the sun. They will sit in front of it everyday for 30 to 45 minutes during fall to spring. Research indicates its best to do this first thing in the morning.  

A person with SAD might try one on its own or in tandem. People with a substance use disorder and SAD may find. combination of talk therapy and antidepressants to be helpful. They might even combine all four. Seeking a professional opinion is essential to recovery. They will be able to figure out the best method for long-lasting recovery. 

Sana Lake Shows Patients How To Beat Season Affect Disorder 

Sana Lake can help people with SAD and a substance use disorder in Missouri. We answer all the important questions like, what is seasonal affective disorder and how to beat season affect disorder with a substance use disorder. We use evidence-based programs in a scenic setting to provide the best care possible in the area. Contact us now to take the first step on the road to recovery.