‘I’m an Psychologist and These Are The Light Therapy Treatments I Recommend for Seasonal Affective Disorder’

If you’re finding yourself cursing the reality of darker mornings and even darker, longer nights, you could be dealing with the pangs of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a very real type of depression that becomes more severe as winter approaches.



a man that is standing in the dark: Chances are you're not the only one experiencing the blues as the mercury drops. Here's how you can push back


© Mint Images – Getty Images
Chances are you’re not the only one experiencing the blues as the mercury drops. Here’s how you can push back

Despite how it may feel, you’re not the only one — it’s thought that around 10-20 per cent of people in the UK experience “mildly debilitating” symptoms of seasonal affective disorder as the weather gets colder and six per cent of adults will experience “recurrent major depressive episodes with seasonal pattern”. Currently, the average age at which seasonal affective disorder symptoms present themselves is 27-years-old in both men and women. Both genders are equally affected.

Despite enjoying an extra hour in bed, most of us will, especially at this time, be spending the majority of daylight hour indoors. For many, this could impact mental health — a 2019 YouGov poll found that 29 per cent of UK adults will experience some kind of depressive symptoms this winter, while six per cent of us will suffer seasonal affective disorder to the point where they’re unable to work or to function properly.

Worried about SAD? Don’t be. We’re here to help with our digestible guide on seasonal affective disorder including expert advice, study commentary, actionable advice, product information and more.



a sunset over a grass field: Cold Dawn Sunrise


© George W Johnson
Cold Dawn Sunrise

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

A form of depression that’s directly related to the changing of the seasons, seasonal affective disorder is experienced most commonly when summer transitions into winter. As it’s as seasonal issue, seasonal affective disorder is often experienced every 12 months. “Patients often begin experiencing symptoms of depression during autumn and often do not feel an improvement in mood until the spring,” explains Dr. Chun Tang, general Practitioner at Pall Mall Medical.

But how is seasonal affective disorder caused?

The research is sporadic, but one cause, it’s believed, is the correlation between the reduced exposure to sunlight and shorter days in winter. That’s because the hormone melatonin, responsible for controlling our sleep cycles, becomes “phase delayed” by people experiencing seasonal affective disorder, leading us to feel sluggish, tired and irritable — regardless of how many espressos have bene imbibed. Stress levels will rise, too, thereby impacting our mental wellbeing, immunity and overall health.

Similarly, serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates anxiety, happiness and mood, could have a bigger impact than previously thought. Due to winter having shorter days and darker weather, there typically isn’t enough natural daylight, which causes a drop in serotonin levels in our brains. On a biological level, this increases the likelihood of someone experiencing a depressive episode.

Seasonal Affective Disorder: What Are The Symptoms?

According to the NHS, symptoms of SAD can include:

  • A persistent low mood
  • A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of despair, guilt and
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Help for people who suffer seasonal and pandemic depression

“I went through a depressive swing. It was unbearable,” she says. Eventually, Hornickel told her roommate she wanted to die.

Since then, Hornickel has been in a partial hospitalization program to treat suicidal ideation, depression and bipolar disorder, and she recognizes that her initial reaction to quarantine was a manic episode. Although she’s doing a lot better, there’s a nagging worry: wintertime.

“For me, personally, the nighttime is really hard,” Hornickel says. “And when there’s not sunlight and sunshine and things to do — at that time in the winter — it definitely compounds those feelings.”

Hornickel is describing seasonal depression, known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. It’s a type of depression that occurs when it gets colder, there’s less light and it’s more difficult to get outside. Mental health experts worry that, because the pandemic has already triggered depressive symptoms in many Americans, more people will experience seasonal depressive symptoms this winter. 

A survey study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September found that U.S. adults were reporting levels of depressive symptoms more than three times higher during the pandemic than before it. A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June yielded similar results, with more U.S. adults reporting adverse mental health symptoms, particularly in young adults, racial and ethnic minorities and essential workers. (On the flip side, a survey done of U.S. teens from May to July found that teens actually fared well when it came to depression and loneliness.)

The American Psychological Association has seen a sharp increase in suicidal ideation, particularly among young adults, during the pandemic, according to Vaile Wright, senior director of health-care innovation. “I think that’s, in large part, due to the level of uncertainty around covid,” she says. While most disasters have a beginning, middle and end, she adds, the pandemic has continued — with no end in sight. 

Summer offered a bit of a respite. As evidence mounted that socializing outdoors is safer, “I think people really relied on their ability to take advantage of the nice weather,” Wright says. But the coming winter months will probably complicate how people are experiencing depression, whether they also suffer from SAD or not, experts say.

Although only a small percentage of people typically report seasonal depression (most estimates put it at 6 percent of the U.S. population for severe symptoms and 14 percent for mild symptoms), Wright says she wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another increase in depressive symptoms among the population in general as the cold weather compounds social isolation.

Lisa Carlson, president of the American Public Health Association, agrees. According to Carlson, seasonal depression is more common in people who have a history of depression. “It may be the people who are at risk of seasonal affective disorder may be the same people for whom covid has already triggered depression,” she says. “So, we may have a lot of overlap in those people.” Carlson also says seasonal depression and clinical depression

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