What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) effects many people each year. While it’s symptoms can be severe, many people can prepare in advance and are able to take protective measures to ease symptoms.

As a general rule, there is not one cause of seasonal affective disorder. Factors such as chemical changes in the body due to decreases in sunlight and changes in one’s circadian rhythm (biological clock) as well as a shift in production of melatonin have been known to all contribute to SAD.

Other preexisting factors can contribute to how susceptible an individual is to experiencing seasonal affective disorder. In this article, we’re going to discuss what factors can cause SAD, symptoms, and hormones that are effected and more.

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What Factors cause Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The short, honest answer is that it depends. It depends on the individual’s family history, a potential previous head injury, lifestyle and more. The factors that tend to trigger the onset of SAD include lowered production of melatonin and serotonin. A history of abuse, neglect and/or current trauma can also influence the likelihood of the someone experiencing seasonal depression annually or not.

But again, it depends on the individual’s circumstance. Some people will experience the changes in hormones and may have some of the previously existing factors but may never experience SAD. It depends on the combination and severity of all considered factors.

What Hormone is Affected by SAD?

The hormones melatonin and serotonin are affected by the change in seasons. This is due to the decrease of sunlight that occurs when the seasons change. Melatonin production in the body increases when the sun goes down. While this does not effect some people, others can experience a lower mood because of it.

Serotonin production is also decreased due to lack of sunlight. Serotonin is associated with a chemical balance in your brain that plays a role in regulating your mood. If you are experiencing a shift in mood due to these chemical changes and you are at risk for depression, seasonal affective depression will be experienced.

Some people experience these shifts in hormones more severely than others too. Some people naturally product more or less of these hormones so factors such as that can contribute as well.


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What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Depression?

It can be easy to identify seasonal affective depression compared to other forms of depression. The biggest clue might be how reliable it comes and goes with the seasons.

Many of us get a little “down” in the middle of winter when it’s too cold to enjoy being outdoors or you’re missing your weekend trips to the beach.

But experiencing SAD is much more severe than feeling “bummed out” about the continuously cold weather. Aside from the predictability, some might experience extreme anxiety knowing that the seasons are about to change.

Knowing that they’re about to experience the intense struggle of seasonal depression might trigger panic disorder/episodes or panic attacks.

Aside from changes in mood, sleep and appetite, predictability and anxiety are two of the biggest ways to identify seasonal affective depression. Below is a list of the most common symptoms that people usually experience.

Common Symptoms

  • Fluctuations in Weight – During winter SAD, weight gain is typically seen while weight loss is typically seen with summer SAD. The increased levels of melatonin in the winter months can cause someone to want to sleep more or to become less active. Less activity is typically the reason why people gain their annual “winter weight”.
  • Thoughts of Suicide – Someone with depression (any form) may experience thoughts of suicide when they’re not actually suicidal. It’s so important to be aware of this in order to take preventative measure and support a healthy mindset.
  • Anxiety – In some cases episodes of anxiety and panic attacks will be developed when seasonal affective depression is experienced.
  • Fatigue – Whether someone is getting their “8 hours” every night or not, fatigue is usually an unavoidable symptom of depression. Seasonal depression often hits hard and will throw the individual experiencing it for a loop even though they might be expecting it. Dealing with it is extremely emotionally taxing.
  • Irritability – Often, some people are not aware that they’re depressed. They only know they’re sad or in a “funk”, and their extreme discomfort will cause them to lash out or become irritable.

How to Ease and Avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The best way to ease seasonal affective depression is to seek professional counseling. You can also talk to your doctor about an appropriate medication. Check out this article on the 11 Benefits of Mental Health Counselors.


Other great ways to cope with SAD include implementing a healthy diet, exercising regularly, engaging in uplifting activities and establishing a fulfilling, relaxing hobby. Here are some suggestions on what to implement into your daily/weekly routine that may help.

  • Go for a daily walk. Whether it’s 10 minutes or an hour, getting outside and having an activity you do regularly will significantly help reduce symptoms of depression.
  • Start your day with mindfulness practice. Try meditation or start a gratitude journal. Anything you can do try to get out of your head and center yourself in the present, undisturbed moment.
  • Keep a daily journal. At first you might not know where to start but eventually you’ll find that simply getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper is very therapeutic.
  • Always have something to look forward to. Plan an annual trip, have weekly dinners with a friend, or take a dance or art class. Heck, do all of the above if keeping busy is your thing!

Don’t underestimate the power of simply eating well (nutritious, clean, whole foods) and regular exercise when it comes to depression. A healthy mind starts with a healthy, vibrant body. Physical energy can be life-changing.

Another great tool to help cope with seasonal affective depression (and anxiety that may be seen with it) are weighted blankets or various weighted accessories.

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Hi, I'm Marissa! I'm passionate about mental and emotional health and want to share what I've learned over the years with others! I've seen first hand how mental health struggles can cause serious issues within relationships, work life, daily productivity, self-worth and more! I truly believe that we owe it to ourselves to bring more awareness to these life changing topics. Start your mental/emotional health journey by learning more today!

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