What is Seasonal affective disorder?

The winter sometimes brings with it more than just colder temperatures and warmer clothes. If you are someone who finds themselves with a changed mood, lower energy, increased fatigue, etc. around the turn of the leaves, then the fall and winter time might bring you Seasonal Affective Disorder.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? | Anxiety and Depression  Association of America, ADAA

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mental health condition that is thought to be provoked by chemical changes in the brain that occurs during the changing of seasons to fall and winter months. Otherwise known by its acronym, S.A.D., it affects adults in the potential following ways:  

  • Increased sleep and drowsiness  
  • Loss of interest   
  • Social withdrawal  
  • Irritability  
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Low energy
  • Decreased concentration
  • Increased Appetite
  • Headaches

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Let’s learn more about the changes in neurochemistry that might spark the onset of this disorder.  

As fall and winter approach, the days get shorter while the periods of darkness get longer. This results in reduced sun exposure which leaves many of us feeling sleepier and slower moving. The shorter periods of sun exposure disrupt our circadian rhythm as our body begins producing more of the sleep hormone (melatonin) than needed. This reduced sun exposure also can result in reduced serotonin levels. This can make one feel more sluggish and low. Not to mention how colder weather can also put more stress on our cardiovascular system, making our body work harder. All together this is the perfect storm for certain vulnerable peoples and nervous systems to develop S.A.D.   

How to Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder


  • Light Therapy 

There are a multitude of ways one can manage this experience of Seasonal Affective Disorder. To begin, light therapy, otherwise known as phototherapy, is often time used. This includes using a LED light box and sitting close to this light source for at least 30 minutes per day especially in the mornings. When using this resource, receptors in the light sensitive portion of the eyes send information to the part of the body that regulates circadian rhythms. Additionally it sends information to the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for regulating mood.   

  • Exposure to sunlight  

Similar to light therapy, getting increased amounts of sunlight has been shown to improve mood. Exposure to sunlight can increase the release of serotonin in the body. Serotonin, otherwise known as the happiness chemical, is a mood-boosting hormone that is responsible for calm, ease, and focus. This exposure to light also increases melatonin production at night which results in more restful sleep. More restful sleep has positive consequences ranging from increased ability to regulate emotions and improved cognitive skills.  

  • Antidepressants  

When necessary, antidepressants can also be of help to those who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder. This doesn’t need to be the “first line of defense” for those with S.A.D.; however, when symptomology of this disorder reaches a level of which it is greatly interfering with daily functioning, antidepressants are an option to consider.  

  • CBT and DBT  

If you are keen to the mental health world, most likely you have heard of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT for short. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a therapeutic modality that focuses on the connection between one’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. CBT has been known to be useful for treating depression as it allows the client to understand how to adjust their behaviors and thoughts to improve their emotional state. Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT for short, is under the same “umbrella” as CBT given that it helps provide clients with tangible tools to improve mood. DBT focuses on 4 main pillars within its framework including, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, mindfulness, and interpersonal effectiveness. Within each of these focuses lies a multitude of teachings that are geared towards empowering an individual struggling with a mood disruption. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean other forms of therapy cannot be incredibly useful. 

  • Behavioral activation  

Behavioral activation, or BA for short, can be very helpful when it comes to struggling with depressive symptoms. The idea of behavioral activation is based on the idea that those who are struggling with depression might struggle with the energy, drive, or motivation needed to execute different actions. By starting with a small and attainable action, you get the momentum going that is needed to perform tasks that are aligned with your wellness. These activities are those that bring you a sense of pleasure and/or mastery. Ideas of this can be:  

  • Playing an instrument  
  • Gardening  
  • Baking/Cooking  
  • Coloring  
  • Croquet/Knitting 
  • Reading

Based on the law of inertia, an object in motion stays in motion and an object at rest stays at rest. Motivation is not necessary for action. By beginning a small task, even if it means just getting out of bed, you will be exponentially more capable of other small tasks that add up to big profits for your mental health.  

  • Move the body  

We all know of the benefits of moving the body, and yes, we also all know that it can be so daunting at times. Moving our body helps to produce endorphins and release emotional energy from our bodies. Start by moving your body in approachable ways such as stretching or walking. It is up to you if you would like to attempt more intense forms of movement but remember that even doing something small is commendable! Here are a few fun ideas for moving the body:  

  • Fuel your body  

A person that feels better physically is more likely to feel better mentally. Be sure to fuel your body with foods that result in you feeling like a better version of yourself. No, this doesn’t mean engage in rigid eating habits, but rather to be curious about the foods that make you feel energized rather than depleted.  

  • Practice self-compassion 

Symptom of depression and anxiety that are not necessarily always listed are low self- compassion and self-deprecation. These often occur as a biproduct of anxiety and depression but they also perpetuate these struggles as well. Utilizing self-compassion is vital when experiencing a mental health battle.  

Here are some suggestions to be kinder to oneself:  

  • Ask “What would I say to a friend feeling this way” 
  • Asl “What are the things I really need to hear right now and can I say them to myself” 
  • Practice positive affirmations such as:  
  • I am enough  
  • I am okay  
  • I am doing the best I can  

If you are in need of more resources when it comes to self-compassion, visit Kristin Neff’s website, https://self-compassion.org/.  

  • Manage expectations for self  

Given the way in which S.A.D. is likely to adjust one’s ability to function in daily, life it is important to consider adjusting one’s expectations for self as well. Many times, we have high expectations related to our productivity level, our social engagement, and so on; however, what if we were to instead have very easily attainable standards for ourselves related to how we go about daily life? Here are some standards versus expectations to consider when struggling with S.A.D.:  

  • Drink water everyday  
  • Eat 3 meals a day  
  • Get 8 hours of sleep  
  • Be kind to one self  

These standards can be best paired with S.M.A.R.T. goals. This acronym stands for a goal that is:  

  • Specific- Is the goal too vague or is it specific enough to follow?  
  • Measurable- Can progress be measured?  
  • Achievable- Is this a goal that can reasonably be met in a specific time frame? 
  • Relevant- Is this goal aligned with your unique personal values? 
  • Timely- Is there an end date to this goal to assist with motivation and prioritization?   
  • Consider adjusted needs this time of year  

Given the ways that S.A.D. can affect one’s functioning and overall state of being, your needs might be altered as well. Consider how your needs might be adjusted if you aren’t feeling your best physically and/or emotionally. Do you need more sleep? Do you need more time to decompress? Perhaps you need others to help keep you accountable for certain goals? Each season in our life, whether it be the yearly seasons or metaphorical ones, places different demands on us. These demands coupled with our state of wellness can result in estimated needs during a specific period of time. Every need is valid. Acknowledging them and making a plan to meet them can make big differences in tolerating life with S.A.D.  

  • LENS Neurofeedback  

At Brittani Persha Counseling, we have several clinicians trained to utilize a system called Lens Neurofeedback. This service can be further explored via our services page; however, one of the reasons for its application is depression. As the Lens neurofeedback system helps to restore one’s brain to optimal functioning, you could see an improvement of symptoms associated to S.A.D such as low energy, lack of motivation, decreased ability to concentrate, low mood, anxiety, and so on. Check out our service page or contact us at 713-364-8645 to learn more.  

How Brittani Persha Counseling Can Help

We hope this blog has informed you a little more about why the fall and winter months can be so taxing for certain individuals, possibly even yourself. For those struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder, know that there is support out there and resources to aid you as you manage this disorder.  

A therapist smiling while meeting with two clients in a Houston therapy office.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health concerns and wants to receive support, contact Brittani Persha Counseling at our main office line 713-364-8645 to set up an appointment with one of our child and adult Houston therapists. You may also visit us at https://brittanipershacounseling.com to learn more about us and our services.   

About The Author

Avery Benedict, LPC-A is a Houston therapist at Brittani Persha Counseling in Houston, TX. Brittani Persha Counseling offers counseling services for children, teens, and adults.

Avery Benedict, LPC-A is a Houston therapist at Brittani Persha Counseling in Houston, TX. She received her undergraduate degree in Human Relations and Educational Psychology from the University of Texas. She continued her education and received her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Sam Houston University. Avery has worked in residential and partial hospitalization treatment settings for patients of all ages who have severe OCD, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders. She has also worked with women and children who have undergone domestic violence and sexual assault. She currently specializes in working with children 7 years and older as well as teens and adults. Avery’s mission is to utilize the passion and education she was blessed with to bring mental wellness to our community one client at a time. 

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