Signs And Symptoms Of Seasonal Affective Disorder

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. May 7th 2016

It’s common to feel a little down every now and then, but for some, mood changes are more serious and occur as the seasons change. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) develops as a result of sunlight variations, which change with the season. The most common time of the year for seasonal affective disorder to occur is during the winter months when there is the least amount of sunlight. According to Mental Health America, over half a million people are affected by seasonal affective disorder each winter. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, such as those listed below, is essential in order to get proper treatment.

Mood Disturbances

According to the Mayo Clinic, mood disturbances are the primary symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Symptoms often start in the fall or winter as the amount of sunlight decreases. It is common for people affected by the disorder to develop symptoms around the same time each year. The severity of mood changes may vary from mild to severe. In some cases, symptoms can interfere with the ability to function normally. Some common mood disturbances associated with SAD are:

  • Depression: Depression, which may include feelings of sadness and hopelessness, is often present with seasonal affective disorder. Some people also feel a sense of guilt or suffer a loss of self-esteem. In some instances, depression may alternate with manic behavior. Mania may include excessive energy and thoughts, sleeplessness and feelings of grandiosity.
  • Irritability: Another common symptom of the disorder is irritability. Having feelings of agitation or nervousness may occur. Whether someone is irritable or easy to anger, relationship problems and work difficulties can result.
  • Anxiety: Along with other mood disturbances, anxiety may also occur. Simple activities, which once did not cause anxiety, may become a great source of stress. Feelings of anxiety may cause an increase in heart rate and shakiness. Anxiety can interfere with everyday activities and greatly impact quality of life.

Weight And Appetite Changes

Appetite changes are common with many types of mood disorders including seasonal affective disorder. Some people may experience an increase in appetite and crave carbohydrate rich foods, such as rice, potatoes and bread, according to the Mayo Clinic. For others, the opposite happens, and they have a decrease in appetite. Because appetite levels often change, weight loss or weight gain is also a common sign of seasonal affective disorder.

Physical Problems

Along with emotional problems and mood changes, physical problems may also develop. Physical symptoms can vary in intensity and may get worse over time. The combination of physical symptoms and mood changes often impacts a person’s quality of life. Common physical problems include the following:

  • Fatigue: Feelings of exhaustion and fatigue are very common with seasonal affective disorder. For some who are affected, just doing everyday activities including household chores, childcare and going to work are difficult.
  • A feeling of heaviness in the limbs: According to the Mayo Clinic, a feeling of heaviness in the limbs may develop in some people. Although there is nothing physically wrong with the legs or arms, the feelings of tiredness are so intense it makes the limbs feel heavy.
  • Sleep problems: Sleep problems are one of the most common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Some people sleep too much, often having difficulty staying awake. Even if someone seems to be sleeping excessively, it may not be restful sleep. Having problems staying asleep and waking often throughout the night are common. In addition to sleeping too much, insomnia can also develop. Sleep problems compound feelings of fatigue and depression.

Additional Symptoms

Additional signs and symptoms may also develop in some instances. It is not unusual for individuals with seasonal affective disorder to have trouble concentrating or focusing on work and family responsibilities. Many people will also have a change in libido. Although usually a loss of interest in sex occurs, a small percentage of people develop an increase in sex drive. Increased sex drive is often more likely to occur with summer onset seasonal affective disorder.

Withdrawing socially is also a common symptom of the disorder. Those affected may lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, stop seeing friends as often and shy away from conversation. Withdrawing socially often can make feelings of hopelessness and depression worse.

Although seasonal affective disorder can be difficult to cope with, there are effective treatments available. Light therapy is one of the most common treatments used. According to Mental Health America, bright light therapy is effective in about 85 percent of people with seasonal affective disorder. Medication, such as antidepressants, may also be useful if light therapy does not help. Although counseling may help someone recognize symptoms and develop coping skills, it is usually not the only treatment recommended. By recognizing symptoms and seeking treatment, seasonal affective disorder can be successfully treated.


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