Part I – Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

While some people look forward to the cooler temperatures and the skiing, snowboarding, and other winter activities that accompany abundant snowfall, others dread the approach of winter for other reasons. For these individuals, the change of seasons brings on a pronounced level of depression. While the exact cause of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is unknown, it is a form of depression related to seasonal change, that improves as the next season begins.

SAD can occur during any seasonal change, but is significantly more prevalent in the colder months. It is categorized as a major depressive disorder with a seasonal component, and it affects upwards of a half a million Americans during late fall and winter. Another 10 to 20 percent of Americans experience the “winter blues,” a much milder form of this condition.

Family Therapy In Minnesota – Seasonal Affective Disorder

Those Who Are Most at Risk

People who live in the northern latitudes are at greater risk for SAD than those who live closer to the equator. Additionally, anyone with a family history of SAD, and those who suffer from bipolar disorder or depression are also at an increased risk. Lastly, women are more susceptible than men – which is likely due to fluctuating hormone levels.

Researchers believe that light levels are directly related to this disorder, and that a lack of sunlight may be disrupting the body’s biological clock for those who experience symptoms in the winter months. Conversely, research seems to indicate that too much sunlight may trigger summertime SAD. The biological clock is what controls sleep, mood, and hormone levels – all factors that can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.

Signs and Symptoms to Watch For

When someone experiences symptoms of depression during a particular season, for two consecutive years (or two consecutive seasons), a diagnosis of SAD is made. These symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed, feelings of depression – all day – on more days than not, decreased energy levels, and problems sleeping.

Those who suffer with seasonal affective disorder during the winter months experience different symptoms than those dealing with summertime SAD. It is also important to note that while summertime symptoms are much less common, they should never be ignored. Additionally, some people suffer from depression triggered by seasonal changes in both the summer and winter seasons.

In the winter, those with SAD will crave carbohydrates and have a tendency to overeat and gain weight, they will also feel exhausted, have very little energy, and tend to withdraw from social activities. Summertime SAD causes restlessness, increased irritability, anxiety, problems sleeping, decreased appetite and weight loss, and periods of violent behavior.

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

The Importance of Treatment

No matter what the cause of this disorder, and which season brings about symptoms, it is important to reach out for help. We recommend seeing a medical doctor to help you rule out physical causes including thyroid disorders, mononucleosis, or another underlying health problem. Nevertheless, whenever you are experiencing feelings of depression, we recommend scheduling an appointment with a cognitive therapist from our Burnsville adult mental health service facility.

Part II – Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

If you are someone who has dealt with SAD in the past, preparing to identify and manage symptoms as the seasons change is important. Whether it is summer giving way to autumn, or the promise of spring after a long winter, symptoms often improve as a new season begins. However, looking forward to these seasonal changes is not enough to alleviate the symptoms when they occur.

You may become more aware of your mood shifts if you are cognizant of the seasonal shifts. As a new season creeps up, getting regular exercise and sticking to a strict sleep schedule (waking up and going to bed at the same time), even on the weekends, can be helpful.

Paying close attention to your diet, focusing on nutritious foods, will help you keep your energy levels high, and during the autumn and winter months, get as much natural light as possible. For instance, open your blinds, sit close to the windows, and eat lunch outside, instead of sitting at your desk, when the weather allows.

In addition to striving for a healthier lifestyle, and sticking to a regular sleep schedule, there are other recommended treatment options. These include medication, light therapy, and psychotherapy.

Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder


Prescription medications are often beneficial and utilized when treating SAD. They may be used on their own or in conjunction with other treatment methods. They are used to augment neurochemicals that determine our mood and behaviors. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often the drug of choice, as they are believed to improve serotonin levels, which can improve mood. Your doctor may also prescribe different medications to determine what works best for your symptoms.

In addition to taking medication during the months you suffer from SAD, your doctor may suggest, as part of your medication management plan, taking it before the season begins and after symptoms subside to prevent them from returning.

Light Therapy

Light therapy, also referred to as phototherapy, is often the first line treatment for autumn-onset SAD. This therapy seems to change the brain chemicals linked to mood by exposure to light that mimics the natural, outdoor lighting environment.

The treatment typically involves sitting a few feet in front of a light box that emits 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light for about 20 minutes to one hour each morning upon waking. This is done throughout the fall and winter months, and individuals often begin to notice results in a few days to a few weeks.

Light Therapy

It is a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider before purchasing a light box. You will want to make sure you get one that filters out skin-damaging UV rays, and since there are several types, you will want to familiarize yourself with the various features and options so you get a product that is safe and effective.


Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, can be helpful in dealing with a wide assortment of emotional and mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, trauma, personal loss, or SAD.

There are many types of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which involves working to change thought patterns and behavior by learning to focus on and solve problems. The therapy works by helping you to recognize negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts. This exercise can help people cope with the symptoms of SAD, as well.

Our Adult and Adolescent Therapy Center Around Burnsville

Whether you are currently dealing with symptoms of SAD, or you have experienced this disorder in the past, our team at Options Family & Behavioral Services is here to help. In addition to keeping up regular appointments with your primary care provider, we recommend reaching out to discuss mood fluctuations and other signs of depression or anxiety with a trained therapist sooner rather than later.

At Options Family & Behavioral Services, we offer adult treatment options as well as adolescent day treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues. When you, or someone you care about, is suffering from depression or other related disorders, it is important to talk about them. Never be ashamed to ask for help – that is the first step to wellness and recovery.


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Burnsville, MN 55337


2675 Long Lake Road, Suite 125
Roseville, MN 55113