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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Seasonal Depression

Your social media is filled with posts of people wearing cute holiday scarves, but what you may not see are those struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). There is music everywhere that talks about happiness and joy. But when you see this and hear this, inside, you feel nothing. Numb. No emotions. Or maybe just overwhelming sadness that you don’t know what to do with. You know you are supposed to be happy, but that is not even an option right now. At what point do you tell someone? Is there anything you can even do to feel different?

The winter months around the holidays can negatively affect the mental health of a lot of adolescents, teens, and young adults. Perhaps that is why someone thought of the names “holiday blues” and “winter blues”. There are some people who are just a little down, a reaction to the overwhelming sensory experience that is the holiday season. But many young people may experience more prolonged seasonal depression symptoms which could be a case of SAD.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, is a type of depression that occurs during specific seasons, most commonly in the winter months. 

It is believed to be caused by a lack of sunlight, which affects the body’s internal clock and production of certain hormones. SAD can manifest as feelings of sadness, fatigue, and a loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed due to seasonal changes. It is more than just “the holiday blues” – it is a legitimate mental health condition that requires attention and treatment.

What’s the difference between the holiday blues and SAD?

The holiday blues often refer to temporary feelings of sadness or overwhelm that occur during the festive season. On the other hand, SAD is a specific type of depression that recurs annually during certain seasons, has more severe symptoms, and can occur throughout the year for more prolonged periods of time.

Symptoms of SAD

Symptoms of SAD can vary from person to person but commonly include:

  1. Persistent sadness: Feeling down or hopeless for most of the day, nearly every day.
  2. Fatigue: Experiencing low energy levels and feeling constantly tired, even after a full night’s sleep.
  3. Changes in appetite: Craving carbohydrates and sugary foods, which can lead to weight gain.
  4. Loss of interest: Losing interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyable.
  5. Social withdrawal: Withdrawing from social interactions and isolating oneself from others.
  6. Difficulty concentrating: Having trouble focusing or staying attentive to tasks.
  7. Increased sleep: Sleeping more than usual or having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.
  8. Feelings of worthlessness: Having a sense of worthlessness or excessive guilt.
  9. Irritability: Feeling easily irritated, agitated, or annoyed by small things.
  10. Lack of motivation: Finding it difficult to start or complete tasks, lacking the drive and enthusiasm.

Causes of SAD

The exact cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is unclear, but several seasonal factors are believed to contribute to its development, including changes in circadian rhythm, decreased serotonin levels, and disrupted balances of melatonin levels.

1. Changes in Circadian Rhythm

Some people’s bodies respond differently to different things, and when the days get shorter and there is literally less light each day, this can change the circadian rhythm in our bodies. The circadian rhythm is your body’s natural sleep and wake cycle that usually lasts for about 24 hours. When something influences that rhythm, it interrupts your sleep and wake cycle, and that can cause seasonal affective disorder.

2. Decreased Serotonin Levels

One possible cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a decrease in serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, and lower levels of serotonin have been linked to symptoms of depression. During the winter months, when there is less sunlight and a higher chance of vitamin D deficiency, as seasons change, it is believed that the brain produces less serotonin, which can contribute to the development of SAD.

3. Disrupted Melatonin Levels

Another factor that may contribute to SAD is disrupted balances of melatonin levels. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep-wake cycles, and it is typically released in response to darkness. During the winter months, when there is less sunlight, the body’s production of melatonin may be increased, leading to excessive sleepiness and a disrupted sleep pattern.

Risk Factors

There are several risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). These can include:

  • Living in areas where there are shorter days and less sunlight
  • A family history of mental health challenges like bipolar disorder or depression
  • Being an adolescent, teen, or young adult
  • Having a compromised immune system or physical health issues

When Does SAD Occur?

Winter and Fall

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) typically occurs during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight and shorter days.

Summer and Reverse SAD

Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as summer-onset SAD, is a less common but still significant condition. Unlike traditional SAD which occurs during the winter months, summer-onset SAD occurs during the winter months.

Mental Health Impacts

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can have a significant impact on a young person’s existing mental health conditions. Here are some of the conditions that SAD may affect:


Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can exacerbate symptoms of depression, making the condition even more challenging to manage. The combination of shorter days decreased sunlight, and disruptions in circadian rhythms can contribute to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest in daily activities.


SAD can also worsen symptoms of anxiety disorders. The lack of sunlight during the summer months can cause increased restlessness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating, which are common symptoms of anxiety. Additionally, the pressure to feel happy and energetic during this time can create additional stress and anxiety for those already struggling with these conditions.

Bipolar Disorder

For young people with bipolar disorder, SAD can trigger episodes of both mania and depression. The changing seasons can disrupt the delicate balance of mood regulation, leading to increased mood swings and instability.

Self-Care for SAD

Self-care plays a crucial role in managing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Taking care of your physical and mental well-being can help alleviate symptoms and improve overall mood. Here are some self-care strategies that can be effective in combating holiday blues caused by SAD:

  1. Get outside: Make an effort to spend time outdoors, especially during daylight hours. Exposure to natural light, even on cloudy days, can help boost serotonin levels and improve mood.
  2. Exercise regularly: Engaging in regular physical activity has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. This can include activities such as walking, jogging, cycling, or even dancing.
  3. Maintain a regular sleep schedule: Consistency in sleeping patterns is key to managing SAD symptoms. Aim for a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends, to help regulate your body’s internal clock.
  4. Practice relaxation techniques: Incorporate relaxation techniques into your daily routine to reduce stress and promote calmness. Deep breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga can all be beneficial in reducing anxiety and improving overall well-being.
  5. Prioritize self-care activities: Taking time for yourself and engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation may help with SAD. Whether it’s reading a book, taking a warm bath, or indulging in a hobby, make sure to prioritize these self-care activities to nourish your soul and uplift your spirits.
  6. Connect with loved ones: The holiday season can be particularly challenging when dealing with SAD. Reach out to your friends and family members for support and companionship. Plan social activities or simply catch up over a cup of coffee. Surrounding yourself with positive relationships can provide a sense of belonging and warmth during this time.
  7. Taking vitamins and practicing healthy eating habits: Proper nutrition is essential for maintaining good mental health. During the holiday season, it can be tempting to indulge in unhealthy foods and excessive sweets, but making an effort to eat nutritious meals and incorporate vitamins into your diet can significantly impact your mood. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D supplements may help those struggling with SAD.

Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder

The bad news is that even if you pull through an episode with self-care, SAD will repeat itself usually at least annually, with the changes of season. The good news is that there are treatments that can help.

Light Therapy

Young people struggling with SAD may benefit from light therapy according to a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. This uses a very bright light therapy box that your doctor will prescribe for you, and you sit under it every day while eating breakfast or reading for the prescribed period of time, typically first thing in the morning. This is for your doctor to determine, though, and requires medical supervision.


Another common treatment option for SAD is psychotherapy, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or talk therapy. CBT can help adolescents, teens, and young adults identify and challenge negative thought patterns associated with SAD, as well as develop coping strategies to manage the symptoms. It can be incredibly helpful to work with a therapist who specializes in SAD and understands the unique challenges that come with it.

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Wrap Up

While the holiday season may bring about the “holiday blues”, if you or your adolescent, teen, or young adult is struggling with prolonged seasonal depression, there are various ways to address and manage and overcome SAD.

Don’t wait to figure out if it’s just the “holiday blues” or SAD. Embark Behavioral Health can help you manage depression and more. Reach out for help today.

*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling or texting 988 or chatting online. You can also text HOME to 741741 ─ the Crisis Text Line ─ from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.   

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.