How to Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder

*Military OneSource does not provide medical counseling services for issues such as depression, substance abuse, suicide prevention or post-traumatic stress disorder. The article below is intended for informational purposes only. Military OneSource can provide referrals to your local military treatment facility, TRICARE or another appropriate resource.

The change of seasons can affect all of us differently.  Some of us welcome the change and do not notice any immediate impact on our moods or overall sense of well-being.  Others may find that the change of seasons also brings a change in how they feel and react to things. Do you tend to feel moody or depressed during the winter months and bounce back when spring begins to arrive? If you've noticed changes in your mood that seem to come and go at the same times each year, you might have seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.

SAD is a type of depression that occurs at a certain time of the year, usually winter. It's often referred to as "winter depression" or "winter blues," although a less common form occurs in the summer. The specific causes of wintertime SAD are unknown, but it's believed to be related more to a lack of sunlight than to cold temperatures. Genetic predisposition, the body's natural internal clock (circadian rhythm) and mood-regulating brain chemicals like serotonin and melatonin may all play a role in the development of SAD in some people but not others. Those at risk for SAD are:

  • More often women than men
  • More likely to live at latitudes where winter days are short and nights are long
  • More likely to have close relatives who also have SAD

Symptoms of SAD

People with SAD have symptoms similar to depression, except that they usually appear in late fall, build up during the winter and diminish as the days get longer. Winter SAD symptoms may include:

  • Hopelessness
  • Loss of energy and ability to concentrate
  • Loss of interest in work and other activities
  • Sluggish movements
  • Social withdrawal
  • Unhappiness and irritability

Treatment for SAD

If you think you might be experiencing SAD, you may want to reach out to your health care provider to learn what you can do to reduce the symptoms. There are several things your health care provider might recommend:

  • Lifestyle changes. For mild symptoms of depression that seem to correspond to the winter months, increasing exposure to sunlight by spending more time outside during the day and letting more natural light into the home can be beneficial. Regular exercise, healthy eating habits and a consistent sleep-wake schedule have also been shown to help relieve SAD symptoms.
  • Light therapy. Health care providers often recommend light therapy as the first therapeutic response to a diagnosis of SAD. By looking online, you can find companies that sell special light therapy lamps with very bright light that mimics light from the sun.
  • Medication. Treatment with medication is frequently prescribed for SAD, especially when symptoms are severe. People who have been coping with SAD for a number of years often begin taking their prescribed medication before symptoms appear in the fall and then taper off soon after the time when symptoms typically subside.
  • Counseling. Talking with a medical counselor can help a person learn and practice healthy ways to cope with the symptoms of SAD.

SAD Diagnosis

If you've had any of the symptoms of SAD lasting for more than a few days, and you're not participating in life the way your normally do, it's may be time to seek help. This is especially the case if you:

  • Are having thoughts of suicide
  • Have withdrawn from family and friends
  • Are having difficulties at work or school
  • Are using alcohol or drugs to cope with symptoms

Before prescribing any treatment, your health care provider may refer you to a mental health specialist to help ensure an accurate diagnosis. The following criteria must be met to distinguish SAD from other forms of depression and bipolar disorder, which have similar symptoms:

  • You must have experienced symptoms during the same season for at least two consecutive years.
  • Periods with symptoms were followed by periods without symptoms.
  • There are no other factors that might have caused the changes in your mood or behavior.

Where to go for help

Treatment for SAD is provided through TRICARE and the Department of Veterans Affairs. If you think you might have SAD, or any other form of depression, make an appointment to see your primary care provider at your military treatment facility or within the TRICARE network of providers. If you are receiving VA benefits, you can also seek treatment and support at your VA primary care clinic. Keep in mind that, without treatment, symptoms may get worse before they improve. You can also reach out to Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 to speak with a non-medical counselor, who can help you find the information and medical counseling services that might put you back on track to a healthier and happier you.


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