Women are more likely to suffer from SAD than men. So, what actually is seasonal affective disorder?

Plus, the eleven main symptoms to know about.

A woman eating a bowl of cereal sits staring out of the window
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s officially pumpkin season, dark come 5pm, and Strictly Come Dancing is back on the television - which, sure, screams cosy season, but also means around a quarter of the UK will begin to experience SAD. So, what is seasonal affective disorder? And how do you know if you have it? 

Otherwise known as seasonal affective disorder or seasonal depression, according to NHS figures, around two million people in the UK and twelve million people across northern Europe are affected by SAD.

FYI, anyone can experience SAD, but the people who have the greatest risks are women between 18 and 30 years old.

That’s according to Bisma Anwar, a Talkspace licensed therapist, and Anton Kotelnikov, mental well-being expert and co-founder of the Afterglow app.

You’ll have heard of it - but what is seasonal affective disorder, really? Keep scrolling.

So, what is seasonal affective disorder?

In short, SAD is a type of low grade depression triggered by the change in seasons. It usually occurs when the days get shorter and darker.

As Anwar expands, you'll normally notice symptoms as they're similar to the symptoms of depression and occur more in the autumn and winter months.

As Kotelnikov points out, while most feel autumn and winter blues to some extent, SAD is a diagnosed condition and a subtype of depression, so do see a doctor, if you're at all worried. 

11 symptoms of seasonal affective disorder 

Symptoms can include:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression 
  • Sleeping problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Low energy 
  • Societal withdrawal
  • Eating more or less
  • Agitation
  • And restlessness, among others. 

What is the best way to treat SAD? 

Opt for light therapy

There are a few effective ways to treat seasonal affective disorder. 

Option one is trying light therapy, where you sit near a “light therapy” box, shares Anwar. "The light therapy box gives off bright light that imitates natural outdoor light," he continues. 

Try this: it's best practice to use light therapy boxes in the morning for at least 30 minutes daily, shares the therapist. "Light therapy affects brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep and can also help with other types of depression and sleep disorders," she goes on. Scroll our guides to the best sunrise alarm clocks, here. 

Try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy that can help to identify and challenge negative thought patterns, explains Anwar. 

"It can help change these negative patterns, especially those related to dislike for winter," they explain. "CBT can help proactively cope with wintertime and engage in anxiety-reducing activities."

Not sure about therapy? Online therapy may be an easier step. Read our guide, here.

Try vitamins and supplements

Some vitamins and natural supplements can help with decreasing symptoms of SAD, shares the therapist. "Taking Vitamin D supplements can help with low levels of vitamin D which can be caused by low dietary intake of this vitamin or less exposure to sunlight," they share. "Plus, Melatonin supplements increase brain melatonin and suppresses secretion of cortisol. It helps with regulating sleep patterns."

Read our guide to how much Vitamin D to take per day during the winter, here. 

See a qualified professional

As Kotelnikov points out, SAD is tricky as the symptoms are easily mistaken for just a crappy mood, which means they're often ignored. 

That said, seasonal affective disorder needs to be treated. 

"It's important to understand that SAD is literally a type of depression, .and it must be treated with medications and/or therapy," he explains. "If you think you're struggling, you must see your doctor to receive proper treatment."

5 signs you have diagnosed seasonal affective disorder, not just day-to-day winter blues

1. Your symptoms begin to impact your day-to-day

If the symptoms outlined above start to impact how you can function day-to-day, you may be experiencing something more serious than just the winter blues or feeling sad, shares Anwar. 

2. You have a history of mental health disorders

If you’re suffering or have previously suffered from any mental health conditions, make sure to see your doctor as soon as you see the early signs of SAD, shares Kotelnikov. 

If you haven’t had any mental health conditions before? Still keep track of your mental state, encourages the specialist. 

For clear explainers on stress vs anxiety and PTSD, read our guides.

3. You have a family history of SAD

Individuals with a family history of SAD, or other types of depression, may also have a greater risk of developing this disorder, shares the therapist.

"Research, published in Brain, a journal of neurology, found a connection between serotonin levels - a chemical that nerve cells in the brain produce - and wintertime SAD," she explains. "Depression symptoms, particularly in people who already had a high predisposition to these types of disorders, increased during the winter months as serotonin levels decreased. This, and other similar research, demonstrates the biological basis and risk for SAD."

4. You experience your symptoms for more than two weeks straight

Have you experienced symptoms most days and for a period longer than two weeks? Then it's time to speak to your doctor. 

5. You find it hard to complete day-to-day responsibilities

If you find it hard to take care of your responsibilities and are unable to perform at work or school, then it may be a sign that something more serious is happening.

Ally Head
Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, eight-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She regularly hosts panels and presents for things like the MC Sustainability Awards, has an Optimum Nutrition qualification, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw, with health page views up 98% year on year, too. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.