CareNow® - January 25, 2024

As the seasons change and winter settles in, you might notice shifts in your mood and energy levels. For some people, these changes may be more than just the winter blues; they could be symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Typically, symptoms of seasonal affective disorder begin in the fall and continue through winter. Most people who suffer from SAD describe the disorder as a lack of energy and a feeling of moodiness, with the disorder sometimes even continuing into spring and early summer.

So, how do you know if you have seasonal affective disorder? And what should you do if you suspect you’re suffering from it? We’re breaking down everything you need to know about SAD, including its causes, symptoms, and potential treatments. 

What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

With SAD, it’s typical for symptoms to start on the milder side and get more severe as the season goes on. Those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder usually experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Persistent Low Mood: Feelings of sadness or emptiness that persist most of the day.
  • Loss of Interest: Decreased interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyable.
  • Low Energy: Fatigue and low energy levels, even after a full night's sleep.
  • Sleep Disturbances: Changes in sleep patterns, such as oversleeping or difficulty falling asleep.
  • Appetite Changes: Increased cravings for carbohydrates and weight gain.
  • Difficulty Concentrating: Difficulty focusing and making decisions.

When is Seasonal Affective Disorder most common?

While SAD can occur at any age, it typically emerges in young adulthood. The prevalence of SAD varies depending on factors such as geographic location and individual susceptibility. Some key points to consider regarding the timing and prevalence of seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Winter Onset: The majority of SAD cases occur with the onset of winter, typically beginning in late fall or early winter and improving in the spring.
  • Geographic Impact: SAD is more common in regions with less sunlight during the winter months, further from the equator.
  • Age and Gender: Younger individuals and women are more likely to experience SAD, though it can affect people of any age or gender.
  • Prevalence: It is estimated that about 5% of the U.S. population experiences SAD, with higher rates in northern latitudes.

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Although the specific cause of seasonal affective disorder is still not known, it is believed that some factors may play a role. Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to SAD, with a family history of mood disorders. Other factors contributing to the disorder include:

Your circadian rhythm

Also known as your biological clock, your circadian rhythm is impacted by the reduced level of sunlight that occurs during the fall and winter months. The lack of sunlight can disrupt your body’s internal clock, which may lead to you feeling depressed.

Your serotonin levels

A reduction in sunlight can also force a drop in serotonin — a brain chemical that impacts your mood. The lack of serotonin in your brain may trigger seasonal affective disorder and depression.

Your melatonin levels

During the winter months, your body’s level of melatonin can be affected by the change in season. This can directly impact your sleep patterns and mood.

Concerned you might be suffering from seasonal affective disorder? Check out your local CareNow® clinic for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

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How is Seasonal Affective Disorder treated?

There are several ways that seasonal affective disorder can be treated, including seasonal affective disorder therapies like light therapy, medications, and psychotherapy. Those suffering from bipolar disorder should discuss this with their provider as it will impact the type of treatment prescribed for them.

Light therapy

Perhaps the most common form of treatment for SAD is light therapy, also called phototherapy. During light therapy, you’re exposed to bright light within the first hour of waking up every day, mimicking the light from the outdoors. This causes the brain chemicals that are linked to mood to change.

Light therapy is usually recommended first since it is the most non-invasive treatment. It normally begins working in as little as a few days and the side effects are minimum. Although research on light therapy is still limited, it does appear to be extremely effective for those who suffer from SAD symptoms.

Although light therapy is typically a great option for treating SAD, it’s still a good idea to speak with your provider before you purchase a lightbox. He or she can help you better understand the features and options that you need so you can purchase the correct product.


In some cases, it may be necessary to begin medication to help treat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, specifically if the symptoms are severe. Antidepressant medications are typically used in these cases.

It’s important to note that it could take several weeks before you notice a full recovery from medication, and you may need to try multiple medications before you discover which one works well for you. You should aim for a medication with few side effects when possible.


Another option for treating SAD is psychotherapy, also called talk therapy. This type of treatment is usually used to help identify and change the negative thoughts and behaviors that are worsening symptoms and learn how to cope with SAD. Psychotherapy is also key in learning how to manage stress, which will help to minimize symptoms as well.

In addition to the prescribed treatment, it’s a good idea to take a few steps of your own to help treat SAD. This includes creating a more sunny and bright environment by doing things like opening blinds and trimming tree branches that keep sunlight from getting into your home.

Taking long walks and spending time outdoors, even if it’s cold or cloudy, can do wonders in treating the symptoms of SAD. It’s recommended that you spend some time outdoors within two hours of waking up in the morning. Regular exercise is also crucial.

Home remedies for Seasonal Affective Disorder

While seeking professional help is crucial for managing seasonal affective disorder, there are several home remedies and lifestyle changes that individuals can incorporate into their routine to alleviate symptoms:

  1. Light therapy: You can easily practice light therapy from home by purchasing a light box. This process involves exposure to a bright light that mimics natural sunlight. Use light therapy in the morning for about 20-30 minutes to simulate exposure to natural sunlight.
  2. Physical activity: Engaging in outdoor activities, even during colder months, is another great way to treat seasonal affective disorder. Exercise, especially in natural light, can boost mood and alleviate symptoms of depression. If outdoor activities are challenging, consider indoor exercises like yoga or home workout routines.
  3. Balanced diet: Maintain a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Ensure an adequate intake of nutrients that support mood, including omega-3 fatty acids. Talk with a healthcare provider about whether vitamin D supplements might be a good option, as sunlight exposure is a primary source of this essential vitamin.
  4. Establishing routine: Stick to a regular sleep schedule and maintain consistent daily routines to support circadian rhythm stability. Incorporate mindfulness practices and relaxation techniques into daily routines to manage stress.
  5. Stay social: Social Connection: Maintain social connections with friends and loved ones. Social interactions contribute to emotional well-being. When possible, try to participate in activities that bring joy and fulfillment, fostering a sense of connection and purpose.

Does urgent care treat Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Urgent care centers are generally not the primary setting for the long-term management of seasonal affective disorder. However, urgent care facilities can play a role in addressing acute symptoms or providing initial guidance. If an individual with SAD experiences a severe episode, urgent care may be consulted for:

  • Crisis Intervention: Urgent care centers can offer immediate support for individuals in crisis, providing a safe space until they can be connected with appropriate mental health resources.
  • Symptom Evaluation: Urgent care providers can assess and evaluate acute symptoms, offering recommendations for further treatment or connecting individuals with mental health professionals.
  • Referral to Specialists: Urgent care providers may refer individuals with seasonal affective disorder to mental health specialists, such as psychiatrists or therapists, for ongoing care.

It's important to note that urgent care is not a substitute for ongoing mental health treatment. For long-term management of seasonal affective disorder, individuals are strongly encouraged to seek the expertise of mental health professionals who specialize in mood disorders and can provide comprehensive, personalized treatment plans.

Urgent care facilities serve as an immediate resource for addressing acute concerns, but ongoing care and support are best provided by mental health specialists who can tailor interventions to the unique needs of each individual.

If you believe you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder and want to talk with a qualified medical professional, visit your local CareNow®. We’ve got more than 225 locations throughout the U.S. — each open 7 days a week, after hours, and on the weekend.

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