Seasonal Affective Disorder and Depression Treatment

The ‘winter blues’ are a well-known phenomenon. Most people chalk up the depression during the darker, colder months to a “phase” that will pass. And quite often winter depression does pass with the change of seasons. But, this doesn’t mean it should be simply ignored or endured. Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD affects an estimated 10 million Americans every fall and winter. For many, depression treatment is the answer. 

In this article, Cottonwood Tucson explores Seasonal Affective Disorder and effective depression treatment. We will offer some tips for overcoming winter depression

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a form of clinical depression that most often manifests in fall and winter. Referred to in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as “Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern”, SAD affects at least 10 million Americans each fall and winter. 

Many people who live in a temperate climate (a place with 4 distinct seasons) experience a mildly depressed mood in the autumn and winter months. When daylight saving time ends in the United States, it can exacerbate the situation for many as they “lose” an hour of daylight in the afternoon. 

While many people experience a downturn in mood in the fall and winter, that doesn’t mean they all have Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a distinct disorder characterized by depressive symptoms that last longer than 2 weeks and are serious enough to disrupt your life. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder facts:

  • At least 10 million Americans experience Seasonal Affective Disorder each year.
  • Only a mental health professional can diagnose SAD or any other form of depression.
  • Winter-pattern SAD is the most common form of seasonal depression disorder.
  • Effective depression treatment is available for Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

Nature’s Hourglass and Biological Responses to Cold and Dark

It’s only natural that falling leaves, colder temperatures, and shorter daylight hours should have some effect on the way we feel. Humans are animals, and as creatures of habit, any change in our routines often has psychological effects. There is unquestionably a biological effect produced by the cold and dark which can lead to a depressed mood.  

For some, the falling leaves and darkening skies are also a reminder of the impermanence of life that leaves them waxing philosophical or sinking into existential dread. For others, it’s simply that less light and colder temps make it difficult to do many of the things they enjoy most. The change of seasons affects us all though, whether we are aware of it or not. When these effects become serious enough to disrupt everyday life though, it’s time to ask for help. 

Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

The symptoms and signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder are virtually the same as other forms of clinical depression. The defining feature of SAD is that the change in seasons triggers these symptoms. 

The most common form of SAD by date is winter-pattern SAD, which usually begins in the fall. There is a variant known as summer-pattern SAD which is rare however – so we’ll focus on winter-pattern SAD here.

Winter-pattern SAD symptoms usually resolve themselves in the spring and summer months — SAD can leave a person feeling depressed for as much as half of the year. That is something that no one should have to endure, especially when help is available. 

Some symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include:

  • Low energy and enthusiasm
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Trouble concentrating or deciding
  • Suicidal ideations, preoccupation with death
  • Sad or depressed mood most or all of the time.
  • Losing interest in favorite pastimes or hobbies.
  • Withdrawn or isolating behavior, less talkative.
  • Increased appetite, craving carbohydrates, etc.
  • Sleeping more than usual, staying up late, and waking later.

Winter Blues vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder

Only a trained mental health professional can formally diagnose clinical depression in any form, including SAD. It is important to differentiate between ‘winter blues’ and Seasonal Affective Disorder. The line between the two may be a bit blurry, but the key difference is that ordinary ‘winter blues’ don’t disrupt your life. 

They don’t leave you stuck in bed, unable or unwilling to face the day. They don’t make you suddenly cry without provocation or cause you to overeat for weeks on end. With the run-of-the-mill winter blues, you can watch a funny movie or go for a walk and snap out of it for a while. 

A good rule of thumb about SAD and depression in general is that, if it is interfering with your daily routine and your enjoyment of life, it’s worth considering getting professional help. Depression treatment helps millions of Americans enjoy a better quality of life every year. There is no unwritten rule that says you or your loved one must “tough it out” and endure SAD or any other form of depression. So don’t. Get the help you deserve and live a better life. 

How is Seasonal Depression or SAD Treated?

Much of the treatment used for seasonal depression, summer-pattern SAD, or winter-pattern SAD is similar to the mental health treatment for other depressive disorders like Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, or Substance-Induced Mood Disorder (SIMD). Treatment methods for SAD include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and various forms of group therapy. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder treatment also often includes specialized methods designed to address the unique causes and conditions surrounding SAD. These may include light therapy, wherein patients are exposed to special light therapy lamps which are designed to mimic the UV wavelength of the sun for a minimum number of hours per day, and vitamin D supplementation. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder treatment methods include:

  • Psychotherapy (talk therapy)
  • Group counseling
  • Antidepressant medications
  • Light therapy
  • Vitamin D

Do I Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

If you find you have many or most of the symptoms of depression listed above, these symptoms appear or intensify with the change of seasons and this has happened to you for at least 2 years in a row, then you may have SAD. Remember that only a trained clinician can formally diagnose mental health conditions like SAD. If you are experiencing these symptoms, you might consider scheduling a mental health evaluation. Residential mental health treatment, like the care we offer at Cottonwood Tucson, is often the answer for people who have depression symptoms that are impacting their quality of life. Most people find that they can make much more progress in a residential program than in weekly or biweekly therapy sessions. If you would like to learn more about SAD and depression treatment, give Cottonwood Tucson a call at  

To be diagnosed with SAD, a person must:

  • Experience the specific symptoms of summer or winter-pattern SAD.
  • Their depression symptoms must be more prevalent during specific seasons.
  • They must have experienced seasonal depression for at least 2 consecutive years.
  • The diagnosis must come from a trained mental health professional.

Luxury Depression Treatment in the Arizona Desert

If you or someone you love is struggling with depression, Cottonwood Tucson can help. 

Cottonwood Tucson is the premier mental health and depression treatment center in the desert Southwest. For over 25 years our mission has been to deliver the highest quality evidence-based treatment available for mental health disorders and substance misuse.

Our private residential treatment program is situated on 35 peaceful and serene acres in the Sonoran Desert foothills. You and your loved ones deserve the expert mental health treatment and innovative therapies that only Cottonwood offers. Let’s have a conversation about what we can do for you. 
Call us anytime, 24 hours a day at (888) 433-1069.

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