Here’s How Seasonal Affective Disorder Can Make Sleep Worse—And What You Can Try, According to a Therapist

Seasonal affective disorder (abbreviated as SAD, which feels a little on the nose) is a type of depression that is season-specific, typically occurring in the late fall/early winter. The National Institute of Mental Health defines SAD as "a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern." Symptoms are similar to major depression, and can include loss of interest in hobbies, low energy, sleep issues, social withdrawal, and changes in appetite. Seasonal affective disorder impacts sleep, too, but there are a few things you can do to continue getting quality zzzs.

For most people, the side effects of SAD last four to five months, though it can vary depending on other lifestyle factors, like where you live, according to Sherry Benton, PhD, therapist and founder of digital mental health platform TAO Connect, who says the scientific community is in debate as to why SAD occurs. "We know that circadian rhythms tend to be a factor in SAD and productivity levels in the winter. It also tends to run in families, and biological changes in neurotransmitters and circadian rhythms have been found in research studies," she explains. In addition, Dr. Benton says it is common to develop SAD if you live where daylight hours are shorter in the winter.

Experts In This Article
  • Sherry Benton, PhD, Sherry Benton, PhD, is a therapist and founder of digital mental health platform TAO Connect.

Typically, people with SAD have a decrease in serotonin production and an increase in melatonin production, says Dr. Benson. This disrupts the sleep/wake cycle. "It's common for people with SAD to fall into a pattern of becoming sedentary and oversleeping, which does not do anything to help alleviate other SAD symptoms," she says. Plus, the changes to the time and hours of daylight make it that much harder to regulate your sleep schedule naturally.

Because of this, Dr. Benson recommends setting a strict, consistent pattern of sleep and exercise, including designating specific times to go to sleep and to wake up, otherwise known as sleep training. "Whether it’s your hormones that may be disrupting your sleep cycle, your circadian rhythm, or perhaps your habit of oversleeping, regulating your routine will force your body to adjust to a new pattern of sleep," she says. She adds that there's solid research supporting light exposure combined with cognitive behavioral therapy, for general treatment of SAD. It can also be beneficial to speak to a therapist. So while SAD is very real, and a serious condition, there is some happy news.

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