Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder, its symptoms & its treatment

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects around 40% of the population every winter between September and April, with December and February being the most common months.

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Here you can discover what SAD is, what causes it, the best treatment for it, & some simple changes you can make to improve the symptoms of SAD.

For a person suffering with SAD it can be debilitating and make the winter months seem never-ending. 

Seasonal affective disorder is typically caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain due to the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in the winter months. 

SAD more often affects younger people, especially those in their 20’s and is thought to affect more women than men. 

Look out for the symptoms of SAD

Symptoms vary from person to person as with all psychological conditions, however the following symptoms are often found in someone with SAD.

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  • Over-Eating 

  • Anxiety

  • Sleep Difficulties

  • Depression

  • Lethargy and Lack of Energy

  • Social Problems

  • Change of Mood with Longer Days

  • Impaired Functioning

  • Loss of Libido


If you think you, a friend or loved one may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, it can hugely help to understand a little more about it and learn how it can be treated. There are things you can do to help yourself as well as professional support available to manage and indeed overcome it.

What causes SAD?

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SAD is linked to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain stimulated by light, which controls mood appetite and sleep, and can affect the way you feel. 

In someone suffering from SAD, the lack of sunlight prevents the hypothalamus from working properly, which affects the production of certain hormones.

Serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, sleep patterns and appetite. It is also, importantly a neurotransmitter, meaning it is responsible for transmitting messages between your nerve cells. Sunlight is known to affect the production of serotonin and therefore lack of it can mean that messages between nerve cells are not being transmitted effectively, which is common with people with SAD, resulting in low mood and changes in appetite.

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Another cause is a chemical called melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that affects the way we sleep. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland which helps us fall asleep. People with SAD produce much higher concentrated levels of melatonin in the winter months, and links directly with the symptoms of sleepiness and lack of energy.

We also have the circadian rhythm, which is a psychological process helping to regulate your body’s internal clock. The circadian rhythm lets you know when to sleep and when you should be awake. When we experience a significantly reduced amount of sunlight it can disturb this rhythm, and as a result of this sleeping and waking patterns are often disrupted which are often linked to signs of depression.

Best Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that SAD should be treated in the same way as other types of depression which includes engaging in talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or medication such as antidepressants, which your GP can prescribe.

There are a variety of other treatments for SAD, including light therapy and taking supplements of melatonin.

My Therapist Online can match you with an expert online therapist who will provide live video based online Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) from the comfort of your home. CBT has been proven to be very effective in treating those with SAD. The treatment focuses on changing the way a person thinks and behaves to enable a more positive outlook and therefore enable a person to work effectively towards their personal goals and valued directions.

There are some small changes you can do to help improve the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

Winter run to help beat depression

Natural Sunlight - Getting outside more regularly can to increase the amount of natural sunlight you are exposed to. Head out doors during your lunch break, particularly on brighter days.

Exercise - Increasing the amount of exercise you do, & taking it outdoors as much as possible. This is a perfect seasonal affective disorder treatment because it naturally increases the amount of serotonin you produce, immediately, & the effects can last for hours.


Healthy Diet - Try to make healthy food choices such as avoiding any sugary or processed foods that will instantly reduce your energy. Whole wheat and oats are good energy releasers. Fruit and vegetables will keep your immune system in tip top condition. Some people find taking a supplement of vitamin B12 and vitamin D is also helpful.


If you would like some help to work through any thing we have raised in this article, please do reach out. We can recommend the best therapist for our needs and get you back on the path to happy, and support you to stay there too.

Written by Lisa Johnston ,

CBT Therapist

Online Therapist

Director of My Therapist Online.

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