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Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

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.

What treatments are there for SAD?

Whether or not your depression seems to be seasonal, it's ok to ask for help at any time. You don't need to wait to see if there's a pattern.

This page covers:

How can I access treatment?

The first step is usually to visit your GP. If you're given a diagnosis of SAD, this will be based on your symptoms repeatedly following a seasonal pattern, usually for two or more years.

Or if the seasonal pattern isn't clear yet you can still get help from your GP for symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Our guide to seeking help for a mental health problem has information about talking to your doctor about your mental health, including what might happen at the appointment and making your voice heard.

“I was well into adulthood before I began to recognise a pattern. Initially I noticed that I often took more sick leave from my job in the winter months.”

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines say you should be offered the same types of treatments for SAD as for other types of depression, including talking therapies and medication. This is because there isn't currently enough evidence to show whether or not particular treatments help with SAD.

You can read the full guidelines on the NICE website, including recommendations on treating SAD. This information uses the term 'seasonal depression' to describe SAD.

Talking therapies

There are many different talking therapies that can be effective in treating depression. See our pages on treatment for depression and talking therapies and counselling for more information and how to access them, including through the NHS, charities or privately.

“My energy levels fluctuated between autumn/winter and spring/summer. I absolutely dreaded the onset of darker days and felt that I was literally shutting down.”

Medication

You might be offered an antidepressant, either on its own or in combination with talking therapy. This will most commonly be a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Your GP might recommend you start taking them a few weeks before the season when your symptoms normally begin.

Our pages on treatment for depression, treatment for anxiety and antidepressants have more information.

“Antidepressants have helped to put me in a place where I was more able to cope with counselling. This required a lot of hard work and I had to accept a completely different way of thinking.”

Medication really helps some people but isn't right for others. Before deciding to take any drug, it's important to make sure you have all the facts you need to make an informed choice.

See our pages on things to consider before taking medication and your right to refuse medication for more information.

Our pages on coming off medication give guidance on how to come off medication safely.

Light therapy

Some people with winter SAD find it helpful to use a light box – a device that gives off strong white or blue light. Or a lamp or alarm clock that simulates dawn. This is sometimes called light therapy.

The NHS doesn't usually provide light therapy because there isn't yet much evidence to show it works, although some people find it helpful. So more research needs to be done to establish why it works for some people and not others.

You can buy light therapy equipment yourself but unfortunately it tends to be expensive. For more information on how light therapy works and tips on how to choose a light box see the NHS guidance on trying light therapy.

Light therapy might not be suitable for you if you're using other treatments that can make your skin sensitive to light. For example:

If you decide to try using a light box or lamp, you may wish to discuss this with your doctor who can advise on whether it's suitable for you to try. If you have existing eye problems or use a light box regularly, it's also a good idea to talk to an optician and to have regular eye check-ups.

“Using a light box wasn't perfect but the change was tangible. A real shift. I began to cope better with the dark days and didn't have the all-encompassing desire to get back into bed and stay there.”

Other treatments

You might also decide to try other treatments alongside, or instead of, talking therapies or medication. These might include:

Your doctor may be able to refer you to some of these. You can also contact your local Mind to find out what they have available.

What if I don't feel better?

Your doctor should offer you regular appointments to check how you're doing, and see how well any treatment is working for you. Different things work for different people at different times, and if a particular medication or talking therapy doesn't work for you, your doctor should be able to suggest an alternative.

If you've tried a range of treatments and none of them have helped, speak to your doctor about this and they may be able to refer you for additional support.

For more suggestions, see our pages on seeking help for a mental health problem.

“I approached my GP and reported my symptoms but, as my antidepressant was increased, this just added another degree of sedation.”

This information was published in April 2022. We will revise it in 2025.

References and bibliography available on request.

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