Seasonal Affective Disorder Is More Than Just ‘Winter Blues’

As daylight gets shorter and the dark hours become longer, more people start to experience symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Alayne Gosson-Kane, LCAT, explains how it affects people and how people can find treatment.

Nov. 8, 2023 5   min read

Silhouette of a young woman in pajamas against the background of a window at home on a bed with seasonal affective disorder or depression. The concept of winter depression due to lack of sunlight

As late fall gives way to the early weeks of winter, the daylight hours are beginning to get shorter. The further people live from the equator, the less daylight they experience during the year.

For some people, seeing later sunrises and earlier sunsets is more than an inconvenience; it is a dreaded anticipation of seasonal affective disorder beginning to rear its head again.

Alayne Gosson-Kane, LCAT, is a program coordinator with Rochester Mental Health Center with Rochester Regional Health and sees more patients with seasonal affective disorder around the end of the year. She discusses how the disorder affects patients, and draws on her experience treating patients to share how they can find relief.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

A form of major depressive disorder that happens to have a seasonal pattern, seasonal affective disorder is something that nearly 13 million people live with – sometimes undiagnosed.

It’s characterized by symptoms such as depressed mood, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, irritability, an increased desire to sleep, loss of pleasure in doing daily things, change in appetite, and weight gain or loss. Some people deal with suicidal ideations.

People who have symptoms of seasonal affective disorder experience a decline in their ability to function as they normally would at work, home, or socially.

Talk With A Licensed Mental Health Professional

While most people experience seasonal affective disorder in the fall and winter months, some people feel symptoms arise more in the spring and summer. Symptoms that occur in these warmer months might include decreased appetite, hypomania, irritability, increased libido, weight loss, anxiety, or difficulty concentrating – all in ways that make a person feel uncomfortable and unable to relax.

“With major depression, symptoms are consistently around in a person’s life,” Gosson-Kane said. “People with seasonal affective disorder have those symptoms go into remission during some seasons and have them return in others.”

Diagnosing seasonal affective disorder

People are more likely to start experiencing seasonal affective disorder when they are 30 or younger. Females are more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder than males; family history is another factor that may increase the likelihood of seasonal affective disorder.

When someone meets with a healthcare professional to seek out a diagnosis, the provider is looking for a few different criteria. They want to determine if the patient

  • has experienced symptoms seasonally for at least 2 years
  • has a history of depression in their family
  • has trouble functioning in day-to-day life
  • is not experiencing symptoms due to a single significant stressor

Meeting with a healthcare professional for a diagnosis is helpful because they take a lot of different parts of a person’s life into consideration. They examine the person’s medical health, family history, establish a baseline of what their personal ‘normal’ looks like – all in an effort to rule out any other causes.

Ways to treat seasonal affective disorder

There are several different methods of treatment that work to lessen the symptoms of the disorder.

Light therapy

One of the more common versions of treatment comes through light therapy or light boxes, which are boxes that give off light at a certain intensity to help the body on a biological level. By exposing a person’s body to bright artificial light around the same time each day, the body can keep its circadian rhythms better. This is especially helpful during daylight saving time.

While everyone’s experience is different, improvement can be seen as early as two weeks later with this type of therapy for some patients.

A similar form of light exposure therapy called dawn simulation helps to regulate the body by slowly increasing the light, similar to the rising sun. Dawn simulation is often incorporated into alarm clocks and available at most retail stores.

Natural light

Getting outside in the natural sunlight may seem like a trite suggestion, but has been shown through research to improve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Being out in nature itself helps to create an effect on the body similar to light boxes.

Combining natural light with physical movement such as a walk, hike, or other activity adds to the positive effects of natural light.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Also known as talk therapy, CBT can help people recognize and change some of the thoughts or beliefs that may have become engrained in their day-to-day thinking. There might be habits or ideas that make daily life better or worse in relation to seasonal affective disorder.

“Talking with someone and learning to identify those thoughts or ideas that might be keeping a person from recovering can be a beneficial step,” Gosson-Kane said.

Being social

While this is easier said than done for some people with seasonal affective disorder, incorporating meaningful social activities into daily life and stepping out in community can be beneficial, as well.

Avoiding isolation is vital to keeping symptoms to a minimum and meeting up for dinner with someone, going for a walk with 1-2 friends, or taking part in a game night can be positive effects on someone who needs relief.


For people whose symptoms are more severe or persistent, anti-depressant medications can be prescribed by a healthcare professional. Some medications prescribed for seasonal affective disorder might include:

  • bupropion
  • fluoxetine
  • sertraline
  • duloxetine

Medications can be used on their own or together with CBT and/or light therapy. While each medication carries its own side effects, they are proven to be very effective – especially if the patient begins taking them before their symptoms begin each season.

Reframing our thinking

It is important to remember that when a challenge like seasonal affective disorder starts to interfere with daily life or the ability to function, telling yourself or having someone tell you to ‘snap out of it’ isn’t helpful.

Similar to diabetes or heart disease, seasonal affective disorder is an illness that can be diagnosed, is linked to family history, and is not something that a person chooses to have.

“Seasonal affective disorder is a real medical condition and we need to reframe mental health disorders as being worthy of our time and attention.,” Gosson-Kane said. “If you are not getting what you need out of your body and mind, and it’s disrupting your life, bring it up with a mental health professional who will to listen without judgement. You are worth taking the time to get some answers and some help.”

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