A sad woman sitting on the couch

Understanding and managing seasonal affective disorder

Ever notice how dull and rainy days can leave you feeling sluggish or unmotivated, or how warm, sunny days can have more of a positive, energizing effect? As the seasons change, so can your mood. In fact, the weather can play a significant role in your mental, and even physical state.

Even though shifts in moods don’t generally get in the way of everyday life, some are more susceptible to forms of depression associated with changes in seasons, especially in the fall when the days get shorter. This condition is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

What is SAD?

SAD is a form a depression that is related to the change in seasons and appears at the same time each year. For most people who are prone to SAD, symptoms commonly appear in the fall and can last until spring.

Being aware and recognizing what’s happening is key. Many people often discount their feelings and consider their symptoms to be a case of the winter blues. If this sounds familiar, and you find yourself experiencing these feelings each year, it may be a sign that something more significant is going on. Even though we can’t control the weather, the good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms of SAD, and the effect it has on your life.

What causes SAD?

There are many factors that can contribute to the onset of SAD. WebMD explains that the fluctuation of our hormones or the activity of certain neurotransmitters is one of the main causes.

The lack of sunlight in the fall and winter seasons causes a drop in serotonin, which is responsible for regulating your moods. The seasonal change can also affect your body’s melatonin level, which directly affects your sleep patterns and may cause fatigue during the day.

While SAD can affect anyone, it does tend to affect younger people more – starting in early adulthood and occurring more commonly in women than men. Other factors also include a family history of SAD or clinical depression, or living in a northern country that sees less sunshine year-round. 2 to 3% of Canadians will suffer from this form of depression, and 10 to 15% will experience symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of SAD

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are very real, and It’s important to recognize that SAD is a form of depression, which is something to take seriously. Symptoms can range from mild to severe – from feeling more irritable than usual, to moods that can interfere with relationships and work.

The Mayo Clinic outlines some of the most significant signs that may indicate that you’re suffering from SAD:

    • Feeling depressed on most days
    • Losing interest in your favourite activities
    • Having low energy, and feeling sluggish or agitated
    • Difficulty sleeping
    • Experiencing appetite or weight changes
    • Having difficulty concentrating
    • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
    • Having thoughts of death or suicide

How can I prevent and treat SAD?

Since there are a range of factors that can cause SAD, like reduced sunlight, lower levels of serotonin, and even a melatonin imbalance – there are also a number of seasonal affective disorder treatments and different preventions that you can try.

Depending on the severity of your situation, you could be prescribed one or more types of treatment. The Canadian Mental Health Association outlines the most common treatments:

  • Light therapy: Sitting near an intense artificial light for about half an hour a day triggers a chemical change in the brain that improves mood and helps relieve symptoms. It’s estimated that 60-80% of people with SAD find substantial relief from light therapy.
  • Medication: Often used to treat all kinds of depression, medications work in different ways. Your doctor will be able to determine if medication is the right treatment for you, depending on the severity of your symptoms.
  • Counselling: Therapeutic approaches like cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can teach you skills that help change your outlook on the world around you. This method involves coaching to help you break negative patterns, including the thoughts and actions that aggravate depression.
  • Self-help: Adjusting your lifestyle to include regular exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep habits, staying connected to others, balanced thinking techniques, and managing stress all contribute to reducing the symptoms. Alternative medicine treatments such as massage therapy, meditation, or yoga can also help ward off SAD.

Sometimes these treatments can be used in conjunction with each other, but as with any treatment, it’s important to consult with your doctor first as there may be side effects and interactions that you need to be aware of.

Other ways to take care of your wellness

In addition to these treatments, the Canadian Mental Health Association offers some other simple tips that can be mindfully added to your daily life to help maximize your exposure to daylight, and soak up some vitamin D.

Even if you have a busy schedule, making a habit of taking a walk during the day can be incredibly beneficial for your mental and physical wellbeing. When at home, try to keep the curtains and blinds open as it’s important to welcome natural light into your space. Studying or working from home? Move your furniture so that you’re able to sit near a window. If you work out at home, try to arrange your exercise set up to be near the window too.

If and when circumstances permit, taking a trip somewhere warm and sunny can also offer a welcome boost.

When should I see a doctor?

Everyone has their ups and downs. There will be days when you feel down and just not like yourself, and that’s completely normal. But when the feeling of being down and depressed lasts for days at a time and starts to affect your life, then it’s time to see your doctor.

It becomes especially urgent if you start to have suicidal thoughts, engage in self-destructive behaviour, or turn to drugs or alcohol for comfort.


If you believe that you or a loved one are experiencing SAD, remember that you’re not alone, that this is more common than you may think, and that there are solutions that can help you take steps towards feeling better. And when it comes to the weather, this too shall pass.

Most Ontario Blue Cross health and disability insurance products include the virtual health care service free of charge. This service allows you to speak with a medical professional anytime, anywhere. Whenever you need help, you can speak with a physician or mental health professionals that will provide you with the help and support to get better.

Article updated November 17, 2020.