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Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms (Top 9)

In this article below, I will cover a few different aspects of the symptoms of winter SAD, their timing, nature and course.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Timing of SAD Symptoms

Typically, symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) occur as the days get shorter and darker. As you can imagine, the timing of when that happens differs according to where you live. Even a difference of two or three degrees of latitude can make a difference to when SAD is likely to strike. In Maryland, for example, where I have lived for several decades, I would typically feel my own SAD symptoms starting in mid-October and going on till March. When I would visit my sister in the Boston area, however, my symptoms would extend from September through April. Since Boston is at about 42 degrees latitude and Bethesda, Maryland at 39 degrees latitude, I can personally attest that a small difference in latitude can extend or contract the duration of symptoms by a month on either end.

I’m referring of course to a time before we knew what SAD was and how to treat it. Now the timing of symptoms can very much be altered for the better thanks to all the SAD-defeating treatments discussed elsewhere on this webpage.

As far as the timing of symptoms is concerned, be careful not to be fooled by darkness that arrives at unexpected times, such as during the springtime when cloudy weather is not uncommon and may last for a week or two. SAD symptoms may also emerge unexpectedly, for example, when you happen to find yourself in dark environments for any reason – for example in basement apartments or rooms with windows that are either small or obstructed. I have seen people whose symptoms arise because of heavy foliage outside their windows or another building too close to theirs.


In many people with SAD the symptoms, if left unchecked, progress in a predictable way, starting with physical symptoms, such as changes in sleeping, energy and eating. Such symptoms are often followed by psychological symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly, and withdrawal from friends and family. As you can imagine, all these symptoms have consequences. The resulting depression is often a late emerging symptom, which is one of the reasons why the diagnosis of SAD can get missed. Many of the physical symptoms can seem nonspecific and resemble other conditions.

Ask yourself: How do I feel when the days get shorter and darker, and around the Christmas holidays? How do I feel when spring arrives and the days get longer and brighter? Such simple questions can be the first step towards diagnosis and a happy outcome.

In order to defeat SAD, be sure to catch the symptoms early before you or those you care about get depressed. Remember the old cliche – prevention is better than cure and catch the symptoms of SAD early.

Not sure if you have SAD? Take the seasonal affective disorder quiz

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Lack of energy, feeling sluggish
Increase need for sleep and difficulty waking in the morning
Increased appetite, especially for sweets and starches
Weight gain
Difficulty concentrating
Less interested in engaging with others
Difficulty completing tasks and getting things done
Decreased creativity
Depressed mood, sadness

Summer-SAD-Symptoms-imageAs you can imagine, the symptoms mentioned above lead to difficulties in different ways.

What you soon realize is that everything requires energy. Without your usual quota of energy, things you may take for granted in other seasons can become all but impossible.

Increased appetite and craving for sweets and starches inexorably lead to weight gain, especially since your lack of energy means fewer calories get burned from exercise.

Difficulty waking up in the morning results in difficulty starting work on time. Difficulty concentrating and getting things done means that the quality of your work is often not your best. Sometimes people feel like they are actually failing at their job or in their homes, where chores mount, bills are unpaid and all sorts of problems may ensue.

As though you don’t already have enough problems, withdrawal from friends and family typically causes people to avoid you. On the one hand you may feel a sense of relief at being left alone. Loneliness, however, may compound your sense of misery and feelings of abandonment.

Finally, all the problems resulting from all the symptoms mentioned above contribute to feeling clinically depressed, which can be severe in some people with SAD, especially if you don’t know what’s causing it.

The good news about SAD is that there is so much you can do to overcome it, as I elaborate elsewhere on this website and in my book, Defeating SAD: A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All Seasons.

Defeating-SADLooking For More Info? Explore Dr. Rosenthal’s Landmark Book Defeating SAD!

The Course of SAD Symptoms

Fall-season-light-shiningWe can think about the course of SAD symptoms across the seasons or across a person’s lifetime.

As I mentioned above, SAD symptoms begin and end at different times of the year depending on where you live, which in turn affects the length of the day and the amount of light to which you are exposed.

People in the same location may experience their symptoms at different times of the year, however. For example, the symptoms of one of my patients with winter SAD began in August, whereas others are fine until after the holiday season and may experience symptoms for the first time as late as January or February.

The course of symptoms can fortunately be radically changed by treatment and in many people, can be entirely eliminated.

Bottom Line

Knowledge of the symptoms can lead almost all who suffer from SAD to be successfully treated.

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