Seasonal affective disorder

Explains seasonal affective disorder, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

Your stories

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What are the common signs of SAD?

SAD has many different symptoms. You do not need all of them to be experiencing SAD. If a doctor gives you a diagnosis of SAD, it is likely to be because you have been experiencing a number of these symptoms in the same season for at least two or three years:

  • lack of energy for everyday tasks, such as studying or going to work
  • concentration problems
  • sleep problems – such as sleeping for longer than usual or not being able to get to sleep
  • depression – feeling sad, low, tearful, guilty, like you have let others or yourself down; sometimes feeling hopeless and despairing, sometimes apathetic and feeling nothing
  • anxiety – tenseness and inability to cope with everyday stresses
  • panic attacks
  • mood changes – in some people, bursts of hyperactivity and cheerfulness (known as hypomania) in spring and autumn
  • overeating – particularly 'comfort eating' or snacking more than usual
  • being more prone to illness – some people with SAD may have a lowered immune system during the winter, and may be more likely to get colds, infections and other illnesses
  • loss of interest in sex or physical contact
  • social and relationship problems – irritability or not wanting to see people; difficult or abusive behaviour
  • greater drug or alcohol use

When might you experience SAD?

In the UK, you may start to get SAD symptoms between September and November and they may continue until March, April or May the following year. If you experience symptoms in reverse, they may begin around March and continue into the autumn.

Symptoms can go away either suddenly (often with a short period of hyperactivity) or gradually, possibly depending on the amount of sunlight in the spring and early summer that year.

When the sun comes out in spring my mood is immediately lifted. It's important to acknowledge that people cannot control this and it is more than 'winter blues'.

What are the winter blues?

For some people, seasonal symptoms are fairly mild and usually concentrated in the middle of the winter – December, January and February. These symptoms are often known as the ‘winter blues’, or sub-syndromal SAD. This is very common, and many people see it as a natural part of living somewhere with large variations between seasons.

Many people don't feel that they need any particular treatment or support with 'winter blues' but most of the suggestions for self-care and treatment and support may be helpful to you. There is no clear dividing line between the 'winter blues' and SAD.

Some people find that their SAD symptoms vary a lot from year to year, while others find that they get better or worse as they get older.

A small percentage of people have very severe symptoms of SAD and find it hard to carry out day-to-day tasks in winter without continuous treatment.

This information was published in June 2016. We will revise it in 2019.

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