06/12/2023 by Therapy For You

What is seasonal affective disorder? Top tips for coping with SAD & depression

What is seasonal affective disorder? Top tips for coping with SAD & depression

Have you ever noticed dips in your mood during the autumn and winter months? Or that you struggle emotionally when the seasons change?


If these sound familiar, you are not alone – and it may be more than just the ‘winter blues’. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mental health condition that affects millions across the UK, and has as significant an impact as other forms of long-term depression.


Below, we explain what SAD is, how it can affect people’s mood, and our top tips for managing seasonal depression whenever it appears for you.


What is seasonal affective disorder?


Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs in a seasonal pattern. 


Also known as seasonal depression, SAD usually affects people during the autumn or winter months. However, some experience difficulties during the spring and summer, or whenever there is a change in the seasons. 


It’s usually a short-term condition that improves when the seasons change back to the person’s preferred times of year.


According to the NHS, every year approximately 2 million in the UK struggle with seasonal affective disorder.


How serious is seasonal affective disorder?


“Cheer up, you’ve just got the winter blues.” 


For some, this is a typical reaction if their mental wellness temporarily declines during the winter. But, just because seasonal affective disorder comes and goes throughout the year doesn’t make it any less serious for those affected.


Like other forms of depression, SAD can dramatically change your outlook on life. It can leave you emotionally numb and empty, and make it feel impossible to experience joy or positivity. You may get no enjoyment from activities that you used to love, or your energy levels might drop, making you feel exhausted all the time.


In the most extreme circumstances, SAD can lead you to experience suicidal thoughts or even cause you to consider harming yourself.


As a result, ‘feeling SAD’ is often more than just ‘feeling sad’. It’s a legitimate mental health condition, and should be treated as thoughtfully as other longstanding types of depression.


If your feelings of depression have led to suicidal thoughts or self-harm, visit our crisis page or contact your GP for an emergency appointment.


What are the causes and symptoms of SAD?


There’s no definitive cause of SAD, but many believe it is due to one of, or a combination of, these three factors:

  • Increased production of melatonin, making people feel sleepy and exhausted
  • Reduced production of serotonin, causing people to feel depressed
  • Disruption to your body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm)

There is also evidence to suggest that some people are more susceptible to SAD because of their genes.


Like other emotional challenges, your experience of SAD can be very different to somebody else’s. However, some of the most common symptoms of SAD include:

  • Constant low mood and negative thoughts
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Frustration or irritability
  • Exhaustion and lack of energy
  • Irregular sleeping patterns (too much or too little)
  • Feeling despair or worthless
  • Change in eating habits
  • Lower concentration
  • Reduced interest in sex

How can I treat my feelings of SAD?


Now you understand that seasonal affective disorder can affect you just as severely as long-term depression, it is important to treat it in the same way, as recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).


There are several treatments for SAD disorders, from various talking therapy options to the more experimental light therapy.


Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)


Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that seeks to improve your mood through techniques and coping strategies that change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours. By breaking the vicious cycles that maintain your low mood, these sessions can help you change the way you feel about particular situations.


A highly effective and proven treatment for depression, CBT can have the same effect for SAD, whether this is working with a therapist face-to-face, or by starting an online CBT course.




A 1-1 counselling service is another form of talking therapy where you and a mental health professional discuss your thoughts and feelings without judgement or criticism.


This can help you better understand why your mood declines at different times of year, and give you the foundation to find the solutions to your problems.




Your GP may prescribe antidepressants for SAD, although there is limited evidence on the effectiveness of this approach. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common types prescribed, as these increase your serotonin levels to lift your mood.


It is often recommended you start taking medication before your symptoms appear, and continue using them until the seasons change back to your preferred state.


Light therapy


Light therapy is a unique treatment for seasonal affective disorder, where you sit by a special SAD lamp or light box for 30 minutes to an hour each morning. This is designed to simulate the sun exposure you miss during the winter months, encouraging your brain to reduce its melatonin levels and increase serotonin levels.

Some people who have tried light therapy say it has helped them manage SAD, although NICE say it’s not clear how effective it is.


Our 8 top tips for coping with SAD & depression


While we would always encourage you to reach out for mental health support if you are finding it hard to cope with SAD, below are eight ways that have been shown to help improve your mood during these seasonal challenges.


1. Spend time in the sunlight


Natural light exposure helps regulate your body's internal clock and stimulates serotonin production. By getting outside more often, or potentially using a light box, this can help you alleviate your depressive symptoms.


2. Get regular exercise


Your emotional health is tied to your physical health. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, whether it’s jogging, cycling, yoga or just a long walk, can help release endorphins that elevate your mood and reduce stress.


3. Keep a mood diary


Maintaining a mood diary can give you valuable insight into your SAD patterns and triggers. By keeping track of how you feel every day and what caused any instances of low mood, you can develop effective coping strategies and lifestyle changes that work for you.


4. Have a sleep routine


If SAD is affecting your sleeping patterns, whether it is struggling to wake up in the morning or sleeping too little, establishing a set bedtime routine can help you achieve restful, quality sleep to support your emotional wellbeing.


5. Eat a balanced diet


Nutrition plays a key role in managing SAD. A balanced diet can help you feel more positive, with Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and nuts linked to improved mood. Minimising processed foods and refined sugars in your diet can also help prevent energy crashes.


6. Start a new hobby


Whether it's art, music, gardening, or any unique interest you have, introducing a new hobby into your routine can help distract from your SAD symptoms and provide a sense of accomplishment and pleasure.


7. Spend time with people


Making an effort to spend more time with friends and family, even virtually, can give you greater emotional support and reduce isolation during these tougher periods.


8. Prepare for the seasonal change


Planning activities to look forward to during the seasons you least prefer, adjusting your schedule for more sunlight exposure, and creating a comfortable indoor environment can all help you adapt to the change in seasons and maintain a positive mindset for the weeks and months ahead.


Do you need help dealing with depression?


If you struggle with seasonal affective disorder, or a persistent low mood no matter the time of year, we are here to help you feel better. 


At Therapy For You, we offer several treatment options to help you access the support you need to understand your feelings, and teach you lifelong skills for a happier, healthier future.

So whether your mood changes with the seasons, or depression feels like a permanent part of your life, let us help you find the path to a better tomorrow.


Get in touch with our team, talk to our easy-to-use Limbic chatbot, or start right now with our free online CBT for depression course.

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