top of page
  • Writer's pictureKensington Psychology

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder - Kensington Psychology & Well-Being

Are you SAD in winter?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that happens to people in winter. Rarely, some are affected in summer only, but as a rule, SAD seems to be related to shorter days with less sunlight. SAD tends to start in adulthood and affects women slightly more than men. Like all depression, it is not something you can just shake off easily, and is likely due to a chemical change in the brain. Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, has been linked to SAD. The body naturally makes more melatonin when it’s dark. When the days are shorter and darker, more melatonin is made. This may affect our mood and other neurotransmitters like serotonin.

The most common symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD):

  • Persistent sad, anxious, hopeless or generally pessimistic mood

  • Increased sleep and daytime drowsiness

  • Loss of interest and pleasure in activities you formerly enjoyed

  • Social withdrawal and increased sensitivity to rejection

  • Grumpiness and anxiety

  • Feelings of guilt and irritability

  • Feeling more tired than usual

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Decreased ability to focus

  • Trouble thinking clearly

  • Increased appetite, especially for sweets and carbohydrates

  • Weight gain

  • Physical problems, such as headaches

Symptoms tend to be seasonal – they appear and disappear at about the same times every year.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, or maybe even before!

If you suspect you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s a good idea to see a doctor or psychologist who may help you distinguish between SAD and more generalised depression, or any other condition. This is important as there may be some variation in treatment.


Here’s what helps:

  • Sunlight - Spending time outside or near a window can help ease symptoms. When the sun is out make a point of soaking it in, especially in the morning.

  • Light therapy - If increasing sunlight is not possible, exposure to a special light for a certain amount of time each day may help. A light therapy box can be bought that mimics outdoor light. (* see below for more).

  • Psychotherapy – Therapy can help you overcome negative thought patterns and learn strategies to cope better with the challenges of living.  Therapy can also help with any underlying issues that may be bothering you and is known to be effective to increase mood and resilience.

  • Antidepressants. These prescription medicines can help correct the chemical imbalance that may lead to SAD.

  • Be gentle with yourself – Do something that brings you joy every day like enjoying your favourite hot drink or enjoying a hobby. Break large tasks into small ones, set priorities, and do what you can as you can.

  • Socialise - You may feel like hiding away when you feel miserable, but seeing good friends or going for coffee with someone gets you out into the light and can lift your energy and mood.

  • Exercise – Exercise is known to upregulate endorphins and thereby lift our mood. Make use of outside activities such as walking or basketball when the sun is out, and draw up your sleeves for a shot of vitamin D. For the geeks among us: s bright sunny day is about 50,000 lux, and a grey day is around 10,000 lux. Even with sunglasses the light outside is beneficial for mood, and when you combine it with exercise it becomes a powerful natural mood lifter!

  • Stay healthy – Eat nutritious and comforting food like soups and enjoy the things that only winter can bring like squash, chestnuts, woolly blankets and cosy snuggles in bed. Make sure to sleep enough, but not too much, and avoid situations where you might be exposed to pesky viruses like overcrowded places.

  • Don’t make decisions when you’re down – you may feel differently about things once you feel better. Delay big decisions until the depression has lifted. Avoid making big changes such as getting a new job or getting married or divorced. Talk it over first with others who know you well. They will likely have a more objective view of your situation.

  • Ask for help – depression and SAD is not a weakness or lack of willpower. It happens to many people all over the world and is a neurochemical reaction that you can not just will better. Lean on a good friend or family member for support, you can repay the favour when you feel better again. Being part of a community of people who care is vital for our mental health.

A Word about Light Therapy for SAD

It's thought that the type of light from Light Boxes designed to teat SAD may cause a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD, such as being tired most of the time and sleeping too much. Light affects complex systems that govern the 24-hour circadian clock our bodies run on, which regulates not just our sleep and wake cycles but also digestion, hormonal activity, and other important bodily functions. New research shows light therapy can also help Major Depressive Disorder and Postnatal Depression. It is also excellent for anybody who is housebound like the elderly, and it typically has no side-effects.

It is generally recommended for use within the first hour of waking up in the morning for about 30 minutes, about half a metre from the face with open eyes.

Decide what size and type of light you’d like, and check what activities you can do with them, such as reading, eating, doing a craft, working on a computer or watching TV.

A few things to keep in mind about Light Boxes

  • They are not regulated so do your homework and preferably get the advice of a professional, especially if you have other health issues.

  • Very important: If you're experiencing both SAD and bipolar disorder, the advisability and timing of using a light box should be carefully reviewed with your health care provider. Increasing exposure too fast or using the light box for too long each time may induce manic symptoms if you have bipolar disorder.

  • If you have past or current eye problems such as glaucoma, cataracts or eye damage from diabetes, get advice from your eye specialist before starting light therapy.

  • Check that it’s specifically for SAD - Some light therapy lamps are designed for skin disorders, not for SAD. Lamps used for skin disorders mainly produce ultraviolet (UV) light and could damage your eyes if used incorrectly.

  • Generally, the light box should provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light and produce as little UV light as possible.

A final word…

Change happens best when we get to know ourselves well, what works and what doesn’t work for us. Seasonal Affective Disorder may be one of your body’s quirks, we all have them! The good news is that it is treatable, and it is always best to consider lifestyle options as well as professional treatment. May you have a bright winter!

For more information about depression or to make an appointment contact Kensington Psychology & Well-Being in Adelaide or call our friendly Reception team at 08 7006 5225.


bottom of page