Many people suffer from a form of depression called seasonal affected disorder (SAD), more commonly referred to as winter depression or the winter blues. What you might not know is that this disorder can affect people at different times of the year. For most people, it starts in the onset of early fall and lasts until the spring, but for others, it starts in the beginning of spring and lasts until the end of summer. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “about 2-3% of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime” and “15% will experience a milder form that leaves them only slightly depressed, but still able to live their life without major disruptions”.

In its most severe form, SAD can be incredibly debilitating and prevent people from going about their daily lives; however, there is hope in receiving cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other forms of treatment for SAD.

What Are the Types of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

As mentioned, most people tend to experience it during the fall and winter months when the days get colder, shorter, and darker. A significantly smaller portion of the population, however, may experience it during the spring and summer months when there is more sunlight and the days seem a lot longer.

One of the main criteria to be diagnosed with SAD is that you must feel the same symptoms that are associated with clinical depression during the same season for at least two consecutive years.

Women are far more likely to be afflicted with SAD than men. Although the reason for this is unknown, it could be possible that SAD is just under reported, under-diagnosed, or even misdiagnosed in men. People are most likely to develop or start noticing symptoms of SAD in adulthood between the ages of 18 and 30.

Psychological Risk Factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder

People who have a family history of blood relatives who suffer from depression may also be at risk for experiencing SAD during specific times of the year. Those who suffer from bipolar disorder are especially prone to certain mood swings and mild or severe forms of mania, also known as hypomania during the spring and summer. Fall and winter can sometimes trigger seasonal depression for people with bipolar disorder.

Another major risk factor for experiencing SAD is proximity to the equator. Those who live in regions that are very far south or north of the equator are more likely to experience SAD. Despite these known risk factors, clinical research has yet to identify singular or concrete causes of SAD.

A portrait of young attractive depressed woman during group therapy.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Symptoms of SAD can vary depending on the time of year each individual person experiences it.

Those who experience SAD during the fall and winter months will most like exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Tiredness, exhaustion, lethargy
  • Oversleeping
  • Unexpected weight gain
  • Changes in appetite, particularly craving more carbohydrates and savoury foods

Those who experience SAD in the spring or summer months may exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Agitation, anxiety, and mood swings
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Lack of an appetite
  • Insomnia, usually associated with an abundance of sunlight which lowers melatonin levels

Combined symptoms of both types of SAD include

  • Long periods of depression that lasts for days or weeks
  • Constantly having low energy, making it difficult to get through each day
  • Sleep problems, whether it’s oversleeping or insomnia
  • Unexpected and uncontrollable appetite and weight changes
  • Low energy or lethargy
  • Agitation and anxiety that’s brought on by seasonal changes
  • Lack of concentration
  • Feeling worthless, guilty, or hopeless
  • Frequent thoughts of self harm, suicide, or death

Regardless of which season triggers your experience with SAD, the above mentioned symptoms may start off relatively mild and get increasingly intense as the weeks progress. If you get to a point where you’re constantly battling feelings of severe depression, anxiety, worthlessness, and hopelessness combined with thoughts of self harm or suicide, you should seek professional help immediately.

How Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Can Help Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Phototherapy, also known as light therapy, in which individuals are exposed to light from a light box that emulates natural lighting, has been proven to be a very successful preventative treatment option for people who suffer from SAD during the fall and winter months. Light therapy effectively replaces the sunlight that’s significantly lacking during this time of year. This can help increase or maintain people’s serotonin and melatonin levels, which are neurotransmitters that control moods and balance sleep patterns in the brain, respectively.

Although light therapy is helpful for people who experience SAD in fall and winter, it’s not conducive for those who experience it during the spring and summer since there’s already an abundance of sunlight. That’s where Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for SAD could be helpful.

CBT is a form of psychotherapy in which people who suffer from SAD can learn to curb and manage their negative feelings that are associated with a particular season and may impact their emotions and actions or lack thereof. Through a technique called behavioural activation, individuals can learn to put more of a positive twist on their negative feelings about a specific season and learn to identify and even embrace the positive aspects of the given season instead.

Examples of behavioural activation include planning fun indoor or outdoor activities, trying to be more social and communicate with friends and family members, as well as taking on a part-time job or scheduling appointments to help you fill your day and pass the time. Behavioural activation can give individuals who suffer from SAD a sense of purpose and accomplishment when completing tasks.