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Seasonal Affective Disorder Symtoms: How to Notice SAD

By Edited Apr 2, 2014 1 2

Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms can be hard to notice when you are not aware of them at all. And on top of that, the symptoms of winter depression are pretty vague as well. Gaining knowledge will help somewhat though. For instance, if you think you are getting in the direction of a winter depression you can check these symptoms yourself and decide if you should see a doctor or not.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or recurrent winter depression is a sub-type of major depression. The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-IV) says: 'is a recurrent pattern of major depressive episodes during the winter and remission of the symptoms during the summer, in the absence of psychosocial stressors.'

This means nothing more than a returning depression in a pattern. This can happen every year in the winter for instance. All of the symptoms of SAD only show during a certain time of the year and they disappear again in the summer. All of this cannot be happening due to a psychosocial stressor, as season-depended work (a painter has less work in the winter).

The causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder are not entirely clear yet. There is a lot said about the photoperiod (how much light you get during the day) and the circadian rhythm (our biological clock). There are hypotheses as well which involve neuroendocrine factors and genes as well.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms[750]

Frequent symptoms in SAD

  • Sadness. (96%) According to Wikipedia, sadness means 'emotional pain associated with, or characterized by feelings of disadvantage, loss, despair, helplessness, sorrow and rage.' This illustrates pretty much what we see in SAD patients, a down mood combined with less activity, less energy.
  • Decreased activity. (96%) In this case, the most illustrating image would be someone who is sitting in front of the TV all day. If somebody wants to watch tv rather than hanging out with friends or doing an activity which healthy subjects would see as enjoying, there is a case of decreased activity.
  • Social misfortune. (92%) Another, and maybe even better, word for social misfortune is 'social distress'. If something is happening in your surroundings you can either take it easily and cope with it pretty well. But in the case of SAD you might feel stressed because of these external factors.
  • Anxiety. (86%) Anxiety is the anxious feeling, without a real external factor. If you feel anxious for a longer time, or more frequently, this may be a sign of SAD.
  • Irritability. (86%) Where your kids can normally do anything without upsetting you, a SAD patient may be irritated faster by the little annoying things.
  • Occupational misfortune. (84%) Again, distress would have been a great word for this as well.
  • Daytime tiredness. (81%) If you feel like taking a nap more often during the winter season this can be a indication for SAD!

Fairly frequent symptoms in SAD

  • Increased sleep. (76%) If you normally sleep only 6 hours and during the winter you definitely need your 8 hours, you may suffer from a winter depression.
  • Poor quality of sleep. (75%) This kind of goes along with the point of daytime sleepiness. If you are not sleeping well, this can be a sign as well of SAD.
  • Increasing weight. (74%) There are several causes for increasing weight with a winter depression. There is a hypothesis your serotonin (a neurotransmitter) is increased, so your craving for food is increased. This will, obviously, increase your weight as well.
  • Carbohydrate craving. (70%) Going on with the point about the craving for food, the carbohydrate craving is produced by the increase in serotonin as well.
  • Decreased libido. (68%) Depressed patients always experience a decrease in their libido. In seasonal affective disorder this is no different.
  • Increased appetite. (65%) As you can see, symptoms involving eating keep coming back.

Fairly infrequent symptoms in SAD

  • Suicidal thoughts. (35%) Not a very frequent sign of SAD, but an important one. If you experience thoughts like 'would anybody be missing me?' 'What am I worth?' you are experiencing suicidal thoughts. It is important to note them and to tell them to whoever who is treating you. These symptoms will probably disappear with therapy, but if not it is important for a doctor to know the patients has these thoughts to present the correct therapy for these thoughts.
  • Decreased sleep. (31%) While you will see an increase of sleep most of the times, it is also possible you experience a decrease in sleep.

So these are the symptoms for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Now all of the percentages behind the symptom are only percentages. If you don't experience sadness it doesn't mean you cannot have SAD, it is only less likely. If you think you have a series of symptoms from this list it might be a good thing to see a doctor sometime, most of all because the treatment of winter depression is really good.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment[751]

There are some good indications for light therapy as a treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The light should be administrated at at least 2500 lux, where it is usually administrated at 10,000 lux. The start of this therapy is 10 minutes a day and only once a day. Depending on the response this is increased to 30 to 45 minutes a day and sometimes even to twice a day.

There are cases with an immediate response to the light therapy, there are cases as well where it can take up to several weeks before there is a response to light therapy.

The light boxes for SAD can be obtained online through a variety of manufacturers. With prices varying from $200-$500.

The light box should be at eye-height and there is a big recommendation for commercially produced boxes over home-made boxes. Most of all because there is always a risk of poor construction when you are trying to make your own SAD light box.


Hopefully you gained some knowledge about Seasonal Affective Disorder. And especially for the people considering their self eligible to SAD, I hope they learned to see the Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms!



Oct 12, 2011 6:14pm
I really like that you offered something people can do to treat SAD instead of just saying what it is. Nice article. Are there any estimates as to how many people are afflicted by it? That could be a related article! How many suffer from it and how it is distributed. (I think I heard somewhere that Sweeden has a high suicide rate because of the lack of sunshine so much of the year?) Anyway, great job. I stumbled it!!
Oct 13, 2011 11:41am
It would be a struggle for me to explain what my depression is caused by. Some think it is a post natal depression, others think it is because of social circumstance and I also fit some of these.
I just keep taking the tablets and carry on best I can.

Great article and tips.
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  1. Magnusson A, Partonen T "The diagnosis, symptomatology, and epidemiology of seasonal affective disorder." CNS Spectrums. Volume 10 (2005): 625-34.
  2. "Seasonal Affective Disorder." UpToDate. 12/10/2011 <Web >

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