You might have heard of seasonal affective disorder or SAD. But what exactly is it? How does it differ from other mood disorders? What are some ways you can reduce its impact this winter? Let’s take a closer look at this surprisingly common condition.

What is SAD?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, seasonal affective disorder is not a separate condition on its own. Instead, it’s a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. Winter-pattern SAD, in which your symptoms arise during the cold winter months, is most common. However, some people have summer-pattern SAD, which occurs during the warmer summer months.

Although it can occur in anyone, SAD is more common in people with other mental health conditions, from attention deficit disorder (ADD) to bipolar disorder. It can also run in families. Those living far from the equator, who experience more winter darkness, are more likely to experience winter-pattern SAD. The condition is also more common in women than in men.

SAD or Simply Feeling Blue?

It’s entirely normal to feel down from time to time, and many people suffer from the holiday blues. But there are two key ways to distinguish SAD from simply feeling a bit low:

Severity: In general, mental health conditions become diagnosable when they start to impact your life negatively. If you’re feeling down, you’re likely able to distract yourself and find ways to improve your mood. If you have SAD, it can be much more challenging to keep going normally and find joy in life.

Length of time: For most people, feeling down is pretty transitory. You might spend the weekend in bed or turn down social invites for a few days. But SAD symptoms typically last for the entire season or as long as five months. You might feel better some days and worse on others, but you won’t feel the overall depression start to lift until the seasons change.

Common SAD Symptoms

SAD is a type of depression, and it shares symptoms with major depression. The most significant difference is that SAD tends to come and go with the seasons, while major depression is unaffected by the time of year. Not everyone with SAD will have all of these symptoms, but most people with the condition will recognize at least a few:

  • Feeling depressed most days
  • Losing interest in your favorite activities
  • Too much or too little energy
  • Hopelessness
  • Feeling worthless
  • Trouble concentrating

Winter-pattern SAD:

  • Sleeping too much
  • Overeating and craving carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Tendency to “hibernate,” staying away from social situations

Summer-pattern SAD:

  • Insomnia
  • Low appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Possible violent tendencies

Although not as common as with major depression, some people with SAD experience thoughts of suicide. This is an emergency. Get help right away:

  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Text HELLO to the Crisis Text Line at 741741

Coping with SAD

Treatment for SAD typically includes some combination of talk therapy, light therapy, vitamin D supplements, and medications. Your mental health provider will work with you to design and implement a treatment plan that can vastly reduce your symptoms.

In addition, you can use self-help techniques. Start by acknowledging and accepting your feelings, and then do what you can to reduce them. Create comfortable conditions in your home, such as keeping it warm (for winter-pattern SAD) or cool (for summer-pattern SAD) and adjusting the amount of light. Maintain your social connections, but don’t be afraid to turn down invitations to potentially triggering situations. Practice regular self-care, such as a hot bath or a warm cup of tea by a fireplace. Learning to work with your emotional state rather than fighting it can go a long way toward making you feel more comfortable all year long.