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Sometimes we have a tough day and that's okay. But if you're struggling to feel happy for a period of time linked to the seasons, you may want to seek help. Here we explain what seasonal depression is and how you can get help.

What is seasonal depression?

Seasonal depression (also known as seasonal affective disorder, SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at specific times of the year, usually in the fall and winter when daylight hours are reduced, but it can also develop in the spring and summer.

This form of depression is distinguished from other types of depression by its distinct pattern related to the seasons. It is, like other depression issues, a treatable condition.

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What causes seasonal depression?

Seasonal depression is not a diagnosis but a type of depression that occurs at specific times of the year, usually during fall and winter when daylight hours are reduced. This form of depression is thought to be caused by a combination of factors that include reduced sunlight during the fall and winter months, which affects the body’s biological clock and leads to disruptions in sleep and wakefulness cycles.

This in turn can affect levels of serotonin, a key mood neurotransmitter, and melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, resulting in symptoms of depression. Genetic factors and a family history of depression can increase the risk, and people living further from the equator, where winter days are shorter, are more likely to be affected. In addition, seasonal depression is more common in women and tends to start in the early adult years.

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What are the symptoms of seasonal depression?

The symptoms of seasonal depression tend to start and subside at about the same time each year. In most cases, symptoms start in late autumn or early winter and disappear during spring and summer. Others experience depressive symptoms during the spring and summer months, but this is less common.

Seasonal depression is characterized by a feeling of sadness or depression that is constantly present most of the day, almost every day, accompanied by a noticeable decrease in interest or pleasure in activities that are usually satisfying. Those affected feel constantly tired and experience a lack of energy to perform daily chores.

Sleep problems are common, with excessive sleepiness most often occurring, although insomnia can also be experienced. There is a tendency for changes in appetite or weight. Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, negative thoughts about oneself and one’s future, increased irritability or anxiety, and difficulty concentrating where problems with focusing, thinking clearly or making decisions are common.

Social withdrawal, a tendency to avoid social situations and isolate oneself, is also a symptom. In addition, people often experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches and other physical discomforts that cannot be explained by other medical conditions.

These symptoms can vary in intensity from mild to severe and can affect an individual’s ability to function in everyday life. If you or someone you know is experiencing these signs, it is important to seek professional help. There are treatments that can be effective for seasonal depression.

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Treatment for seasonal depression

Treatment for seasonal depression often involves several strategies that can be used individually or in combination to reduce symptoms. Here are some of the most common treatment methods:

  1. Psychotherapy: Specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective for treatment. CBT can help the individual identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to the depression, as well as develop strategies to manage the symptoms.
  2. Medication: Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may be prescribed to treat seasonal depression.
  3. Vitamin D: Since lack of sunlight during the fall and winter months can lead to lower levels of vitamin D, vitamin D supplementation may sometimes be recommended as part of treatment.
  4. Regular exercise: Physical activity can help reduce symptoms of depression by releasing endorphins and other substances in the brain that improve wellbeing.
  5. Sleep and sunlight: Maintaining a regular daily routine, especially with regard to sleep and exposure to natural light, can help stabilize the body’s biological clock and reduce symptoms.

It is important that a person suffering from seasonal depression consults a health professional to discuss the most appropriate treatment options based on their specific needs and symptoms. A combination of treatments may be necessary to effectively manage the condition.

12 frequently asked questions about seasonal depression

What is seasonal depression?

Seasonal depression (also called seasonal affective disorder, SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at specific times of the year, usually during fall and winter when daylight hours are reduced, but it can also occur in spring and summer.

What are the most common symptoms of seasonal depression?

The most common symptoms include persistent sadness, lack of energy, sleep problems, fatigue and irritability.

How is seasonal depression diagnosed?

Diagnosis of depression is usually done through interviews and assessment forms by a health professional such as a psychologist or doctor. Blood tests are also often taken to rule out other medical causes.

What causes seasonal depression?

Seasonal depression is not a diagnosis but a type of depression that occurs at specific times of the year, usually during autumn and winter when daylight hours are reduced.

How is seasonal depression treated?

Treatment options vary but often include therapy, medication and lifestyle changes. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common form of psychological treatment.

How long is the treatment for seasonal depression?

The length of treatment can vary depending on the severity and individual needs. Some people can experience relief within a few weeks, while others need longer treatment.

Can exercise help with seasonal depression?

Yes, regular physical activity can help but often more intervention is needed and physical activity should not replace professional care if needed.

What is the difference between major depression and seasonal depression?

Major depression is episodic, which means that you may experience periods of normal mood between episodes. Seasonal depression is a form of depression that is more linked specifically to the seasons.

How does seasonal depression affect relationships?

Depression can make it difficult to maintain healthy relationships and can lead to withdrawal and reduced interest in socializing.

Is seasonal depression more common in winter?

Yes, it is more common in autumn and winter, but it also occurs in spring and summer.

Is seasonal depression more common in men or women?

It is a condition that is more common in women.

Where can I get help?

If you experience symptoms of depression, it is important to seek professional help. Our psychologists and therapists are available for online or face-to-face consultations and can help you make the difficult things easier. If you have thoughts of self-harm or suicidal thoughts, contact 112 or the nearest emergency psychiatric clinic.

What is the treatment for seasonal depression?

Treatment for seasonal depression is often a combination of psychotherapy, medication and lifestyle changes, tailored to the individual’s specific needs and situation. Here are some common treatment methods:

  1. Medication: Antidepressants are often a central part of treatment. The choice of medication depends on the patient’s symptoms, health status and response to previous treatments.
  2. Psychotherapy: Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT) and psychodynamic therapy are effective for many patients. These therapies help individuals understand and manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviors that contribute to depression.
  3. Lifestyle changes and self-help strategies: Physical activity, healthy eating, good sleep hygiene and stress management can play an important role in the treatment of depression. Establishing a regular routine, participating in social activities and practicing relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can also be helpful.
  4. Psychotherapeutic and medical combination treatments: Often a combination of psychotherapy and medication is used to provide a more comprehensive treatment.

Importantly, treatment for seasonal depression is individualized and may need to be adjusted over time. Regular follow-up with a health professional is important to monitor progress and make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan.

If you or someone close to you is seeking professional help for depression, do not hesitate to book a session with one of our qualified psychologists or therapists.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.