Get the facts on seasonal depression

by Kaiser Permanente |
Person with seasonal affective disorder sitting on couch and looking out a window

Between the cold, dry air, storms, and shorter days, winter can be hard on your health. And it’s even harder if you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

If you tend to feel down or “off” around the same time each year, you could be experiencing a seasonal form of depression. While it can happen in the warm months too, SAD is most common in the winter.

Here’s what you need to know about winter-pattern seasonal affective disorder, or winter depression — including symptoms and care options. 

What causes seasonal affective disorder?

The exact cause of SAD is unclear. But like with depression, some external factors may contribute, especially in the colder months. For one, shorter days make it harder to get enough sunlight. This can cause serotonin levels to drop, which affects mood.2

The change in daytime hours can also affect your body’s internal clock and melatonin levels, disrupting your sleep. All these factors can lead to feelings of depression. 

How to tell if you have seasonal affective disorder

The symptoms of SAD resemble other forms of depression, like:

  • Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • Feelings of sadness for most of the day
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Sleeping more than usual

To figure out if your depression is seasonal, consider these questions:

  • Have you felt depressed at the start of winter for the last 2 years?
  • Do you often feel better once winter ends?
  • Does anyone in your family have SAD?

If you answered yes to some or all of these questions, you might be struggling with SAD.

How to manage symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

There are many ways to manage SAD. You can try a broad range of mental health and wellness tools for self-care, or seek help from a doctor. Explore the methods that work best for your symptoms and lifestyle.

Here are some common options for treating seasonal depression:

Get more sunlight

To help manage the symptoms of SAD, try getting extra sunlight whenever you can. Some easy options are: 

  • Stepping outside a few times a day
  • Taking a brisk walk on your lunch break
  • Rearranging furniture or trimming trees to allow more sun into your home

Break a sweat

Exercise in general can ease symptoms, and it doesn’t have to be strenuous. Here are some workouts that can help with SAD:

  • Daily walks to maximize sun exposure
  • Strength training to release endorphins
  • Yoga to relieve stress, build strength, and improve flexibility

Practice good sleep hygiene

A healthy sleep schedule is important for everyone’s mental health. Some easy ways to change your sleep routine in the winter include:

  • Going to bed earlier so you’re awake during fewer nighttime hours. A warm bath, gentle stretching, or soothing cup of tea before bed can help.
  • Napping to help with stress, but don’t do it too close to bedtime, or for too long at a time. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes around midday, or halfway between when you wake up in the morning and go to bed at night.
  • Reducing how much caffeine you drink 4 to 6 hours before bedtime.
  • Avoiding screen time in bed, whether it’s with your computer, phone, tablet, or television. If you need something to focus your mind on, try reading a book, doing a crossword puzzle by hand, or meditating.

Talk to your doctor

In some cases, a doctor may recommend clinical treatments for seasonal affective disorder, like:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A behavior-based approach to treating depression and other conditions. Some smartphone apps, like myStrength, have CBT-based programs to help users manage depression.
  • Antidepressants: Medications, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
  • Vitamin D: Dietary supplements to boost your vitamin intake.
  • Light therapy: A treatment using bright light boxes for 20 to 60 minutes each day to help reset your internal clock.

If your symptoms are disrupting your life, talk to your doctor about what care options might be best for you.

Seasonal Affective Disorder,” National Institute of Mental Health, accessed September 12, 2022. 

2 “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD),” Mayo Clinic, accessed September 6, 2022.