Shining a Light on Seasonal Depression

Shining a Light on Seasonal Depression

When the season changes from summer to fall to winter, it can be hard to adjust to cooler weather and shorter days. For about 5% of people each year, the change can result in seasonal depression, also called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Learn more about how to manage seasonal depression, what symptoms to look out for, and when you should see a doctor.


This story originally appeared on massgeneralbrigham.org.

What is seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? Seasonal depression typically occurs in the fall or winter months.

“Humans are not immune to the cycle of the seasons. We have changes in our hormones and in our physiology that occur when the weather gets colder and the days get shorter that can affect mood, anxiety, and energy levels,” explains George Dominiak, MD, a psychiatrist with Mass General Brigham Integrated Care.
Symptoms can include:

  • Increase in sadness
  • Lower energy or feeling lethargic
  • Sleeping more
  • Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
  • Loss of interest in everyday activities

“It’s often mild. But when it happens and repeats for several years in a row, or so severely that it affects a person’s ability to function at home or at work on a daily basis, it could be considered an actual depressive episode,” says Dr. Dominiak.

Patients should contact their doctor if they’re experiencing multiple symptoms that are making their everyday lives more difficult. “If they’re not already seeing a mental health provider, they can be evaluated by their primary care physician, who can refer them for more specialized treatment if necessary,” Dr. Dominiak says.

What are the risk factors for seasonal depression?
You may be more likely than others to have seasonal depression if:

  • You’re a woman.
  • You’re age 18 to 30.
  • You have other mood disorders, like depression or bipolar disorder.
  • You have a family history of seasonal depression.
  • You live far away from the equator, or you live in a place that typically has cloudy, rainy, or foggy weather.

“Two variables affect the amount of sunlight available to you: the further away you get from the equator, whether it’s north or south, and if you live in areas where it’s typically cloudy, rainy, or foggy all the time. Both factors result in a higher probability for getting seasonal depression,” says Dr. Dominiak.

How is seasonal depression or SAD treated?
For milder cases, Dr. Dominiak recommends people make some lifestyle changes. “The simplest treatment is to get up earlier in the morning to go outside and get some sunlight on your face,” he says. “Even on cloudy days, just getting daylight exposure can make a big difference.” Dr. Dominiak also recommends not wearing sunglasses on winter mornings because it reduces the amount of light that touches your face and enters your eyes.

Other lifestyle changes include:

  • Getting regular exercise
  • Eating healthy foods rich in vitamins and minerals
  • Engaging in regular social activities

For people with more severe seasonal depression, exposing their faces to a light box first thing in the morning for 15 to 30 minutes a day can be helpful. A light box generates bright light that mimics sunlight. It should have a rating of at least 10,000 lux, which measures the intensity of the light produced. Doctors also may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or medication treatment to manage symptoms.