SAD 101: Learn about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and How to Cope with It

Discover what Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is, and effective strategies for managing SAD to improve your mood and energy during the winter months.

Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC By Greg Lozano, LPC

Updated on Mar 06, 2024

x icon linked-in icon facebook icon instagram icon

As the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, many people find themselves feeling sleepier, lazier, and a bit blue. We’re stuck inside more, bundling up to go outside feels like a chore, and the sun setting before 5 PM straight up stinks.

While it’s normal to feel a bit off during the winter months, for some people, this shift goes beyond a simple case of the “winter blues.” Enter: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This form of depression can really make your winter miserable if you don’t take proper action. Thankfully, there are some tried-and-true ways that you can treat your SAD and have a better winter.

Here’s what you need to know about seasonal affective disorder and how to treat it:

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder, also referred to as “SAD”, is a form of depression that is seasonal. SAD is also sometimes called seasonal depression. SAD can cast a dark shadow over your mental health, affecting your energy levels, mood, and overall outlook on life.

“SAD typically occurs during fall and winter when there are fewer daylight hours, resulting in reduced exposure to sunlight,” says Joshua Goldman, a licensed clinical social worker with Grow Therapy. “This can disrupt the body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm, and lead to imbalanced serotonin and/or melatonin levels.”

Serotonin and melatonin are two hormones that play an important role in mood and other aspects of functioning. So, when these hormones are imbalanced, it can cause mental and physical issues, Goldman says. That’s why this is much more than a case of winter blues or lazy vibes – there are real physiological changes happening that have a significant impact on the brain and body.

SAD typically occurs during fall and winter when there are fewer daylight hours, resulting in reduced exposure to sunlight.

- Joshua Goldman, LCSW

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Symptoms of SAD are similar to symptoms of major depression, but instead, these symptoms only occur at a certain time of the year in a seasonal pattern. Goldman notes that te trademark signs of seasonal affective disorder are depressive symptoms such as persistent low mood, fatigue, changes in sleep, and loss of interest in typically pleasurable activities.

Additional SAD symptoms include: 

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatments

Luckily, there are effective treatments for SAD. There are three main categories of treatment: light therapy, psychotherapy (talk therapy), and medication. People may use one, two, or all three of these methods. A mental health professional can help you determine what the best treatment plan is to get you feeling better.

1) Light therapy

Since one of the main causes of seasonal depression is the lack of light, mental health professionals often recommend bright light therapy, which is exposure to super bright light indoors, as a part of treatment.

“People expose themselves to particularly bright light that can mimic natural sunlight. Usually, this light comes from a special device called a light box, which operates at a much brighter level than typical indoor lighting,” says Goldman.

Basically, you sit in front of this light therapy device first thing in the morning every day for around 20 to 30 minutes. The goal of this is to help regulate the brain’s hormonal production and circadian rhythm, Goldman says.

You can buy these online without a prescription, but it’s best to consult with a mental health or medical health professional before buying one to make sure you are a good candidate for light therapy, you are getting a reputable product, and you know how to use it properly.

2) Psychotherapy (talk therapy)

“Psychotherapy should always be included as a potential treatment for dealing with mental health issues such as SAD,” says Goldman. Therapy can give you a safe space to express and process all the difficult emotions you’re dealing with this winter. A good therapist will help you not just to survive the winter, but to thrive the best you can despite your challenges.

“Because SAD is a type of depression, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be most effective in helping people prevent and treat their symptoms,” says Victoria Kamhi, a licensed clinical professional counselor with Grow Therapy. “CBT will help you understand how your thoughts affect your emotions and behaviors. You will learn how to replace negative thoughts with more positive thoughts that will improve your mood.”

An important aspect of CBT that’s useful for seasonal depression is behavioral activation (BA). Essentially, behavioral activation is a fancy term for taking action and pushing yourself to do something that you know will make you feel good, even if you don’t feel like doing it. Seasonal depression will likely make you want to hibernate in bed and sleep the day away, but this only further fuels feelings of depression and fatigue. By purposely engaging in activities that you know will make you feel good, even if you don’t have the motivation to do it, you can experience an improvement in mood. This encourages you to engage in various activities that will decrease your depression, boost your energy level, and increase your enjoyment of life, Kamhi says.

On top of CBT, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is another form of psychotherapy that can benefit people with SAD, says Kamhi. DBT benefits seasonal depression by focusing on developing skills for managing intense emotions and suicidal thoughts that may be present with SAD. This therapy emphasizes the concept of mindfulness, encouraging you to stay present in the moment without judgment, which certainly takes practice because this is easier said than done. For those grappling with difficult thoughts and emotions, practicing mindfulness can be a game-changer as you learn to develop an awareness of thoughts and feelings without becoming completely overwhelmed by them.

Additionally, DBT skills of emotional regulation and distress tolerance will help you learn how to regulate the ebbs and flows of your emotions by understanding them, identifying them, naming them, and emphasizing that all emotions are a part of life. Distress tolerance skills will help you cope and calm down when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

CBT and DBT are just two types of talk therapy used for seasonal depression and many other mental health conditions. However, plenty of other therapy modalities can be useful depending on your situation, symptoms, and any other co-occurring conditions.

3) Medications

In some cases, interventions like light therapy and psychotherapy aren’t enough to relieve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. In these cases, medications such as antidepressants can be an option, says Goldman. However, it’s important to note that antidepressants are not a silver bullet or an end-all-be-all treatment for SAD.

Your therapist may recommend seeing a psychiatric nurse practitioner or psychiatrist to discuss if medication could be the right fit for you.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Self-Care and Coping Skills

On top of other SAD treatments, good self-care is absolutely crucial to managing symptoms of SAD and to overall well-being, Goldman says.

Here are seven therapist-backed tips for coping with seasonal affective disorder.

1) Get moving

Exercise is extremely beneficial for mental health, including relieving symptoms of depression. “You can lift your spirits simply by increasing your level of activity,” says Kamhi. “Even though your mind is telling you it won’t make a difference, do it anyway because you will feel better.” This is because exercise results in physiological changes that can in turn improve your mood.

Physical activity leads to the release of feel-good chemicals endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, which can give you a mood boost and reduce stress. Aim to get moving often – whether that’s something as simple as taking a walk around your neighborhood or doing a full workout at the gym. Ideally, you should exercise for at least 30 minutes three to five days a week for mental health benefits.

2) Stay connected with family and friends

Social support is crucial when struggling with well-being. Mental health conditions like seasonal depression can make you want to isolate and spend all your time alone, but this can ultimately make you feel worse. Make an effort to regularly spend time with your family members, friends, and loved ones in order to keep your spirits lifted, Kamhi says.

Maintaining healthy social connections can benefit your mental and physical health. Plus, when you’re going through a difficult time with SAD, social support can be a powerful source of comfort and understanding. Sharing your feelings with friends and family provides an outlet for expressing emotions and a chance to ask for help. Social interactions can also offer a welcome distraction from negative, depressing thoughts, bringing you much-needed moments of joy and laughter.

3) Don’t forget the health basics

Your mental and physical health go hand in hand. Goldman suggests making sure you are eating a healthy, balanced diet. This will ensure your body and brain have the nutrients they need to function most optimally.

You also want to have a healthy sleep schedule and good sleep hygiene. Aim to have a consistent bedtime and wake-up time that you adhere to. This can help you have an easier time falling asleep and waking up feeling more rested. Although SAD can cause you to want to sleep more and more, oversleeping a significant amount can backfire. It’s best to aim for the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep every night.

4) Consider vitamin D supplementation

Many people who experience SAD symptoms have a deficiency in vitamin D, says Kamhi. This is something you can ask your healthcare provider about. Blood tests can determine if you have a vitamin D deficiency. In this case, your doctor may suggest vitamin D supplementation. However, there isn’t conclusive hard evidence that vitamin D supplementation can reduce SAD symptoms. Again, it’s best to check with your doctor first.

5) Indulge in cozy, soothing self-care

Lean into the winter vibes and get cozy with soothing activities. Kamhi suggests the following:

6) Practice mindfulness

Goldman says maintaining a mindfulness practice, whether through meditation, mindful breathing, or your exercises of choice, can help improve SAD symptoms. Experiment with different mindfulness exercises and see what works best for you. If you’re a beginner, you may want to head to YouTube or a mindfulness app to listen to guided meditations that will lead you through exercises every step of the way.

7) Plan ahead

Next year, plan ahead and be prepared for your mood changes. “If you have had SAD symptoms in the past, think about the challenges you’ve experienced and identify coping strategies you will use to successfully deal with these challenges,” says Kamhi.

This includes creating a plan with your therapist and/or doctor about when you should start using your light box and/or take medication.

“By anticipating and preparing for these challenges, you will be able to immediately start using strategies so that you aren’t overwhelmed with SAD symptoms,” Kamhi says.

Not to mention, planning ahead provides structure and predictability that can help lessen the impact the symptoms of SAD could have.

Relief from Seasonal Affective Disorder Is Possible

Although SAD might make you feel super hopeless and down in the dumps, we promise, there is hope. With the right care and treatment plan, you can reduce your SAD symptoms and feel better.

Grow Therapy can help. We can connect you with a therapist in your area or online who accepts your insurance. We have many qualified therapists who specialize in depression who can help you feel better this winter. Get started with your search today.


  • The lack of sunlight and overall daylight hours, thereby affecting serotonin, melatonin, and the circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle), is what commonly triggers winter SAD. Additionally, vitamin D deficiency, also due to lack of sunlight, may further contribute to symptoms in winter SAD.

  • For winter-onset seasonal depression, symptoms typically begin popping up anywhere from late fall to early winter and then start to resolve in spring. Usually, SAD lasts for four to five months of the year.

  • Yes. Although we mostly associate SAD with wintertime, it can also occur in the spring/summer. This is known as reverse SAD or summer-onset SAD. It’s far less common than winter-onset SAD, but it does happen.

  • The main three treatments for seasonal depression are: •Light therapy •Psychotherapy (talk therapy) •Medications (antidepressants) Lifestyle changes and self-care are also beneficial alongside treatment.

  • Whether your insurance covers the cost of a SAD light box will depend on your specific insurance carrier and plan. In most cases, insurance will not pay for your light box. However, if you are formally diagnosed with SAD, contact your insurance to check your benefits.

  • The main SAD treatment that would result in side effects would be medication. Antidepressants can potentially cause a wide array of side effects ranging from nausea to headaches to changes in sex drive. Everyone is different and may or may not experience side effects. If you are taking medication and experiencing side effects, don’t hesitate to tell your provider, who can help you develop a plan and look into alternative treatment options.

About the author
Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC Greg Lozano, LPC

Greg Lozano is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in mood disorders, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and relationships.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

x icon linked-in icon facebook icon instagram icon