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8 Surprising Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Updated: Apr 19

Feeling the winter blues? It might not just be a case of cabin fever. If you find yourself feeling inexplicably down during the colder months, you might be experiencing more than just the winter doldrums. In fact, it could be something called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. But how do you know if it's just a case of the winter blues or something more serious? In this article, we'll delve into the surprising symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder that you might not have considered as well as let you know some helpful resources and aids to make the winter months more bearable. So if you've ever wondered why winter seems to bring you down, keep reading—we'll show you how to take action for a happier and healthier winter.

Disclaimer: This blog is to inform and not to self-diagnose, if you feel you may be suffering from SAD please seek professional help from your GP before trying any treatment.

Changes in Sleep Patterns

In addition to feeling down during the colder months, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can also manifest in changes to sleep patterns. These could include:

  • Disrupted sleep

  • Difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep

  • Hypersomnia

  • Excessive fatigue

While it's common to feel a bit more sluggish in the winter months, excessive sleepiness or difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep can be indicators of a larger issue.

These examples are broad and can be linked to many conditions or just fluctuations in mood, keeping a journal for your sleep can help you see patterns at play.


Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

This journal is specifically designed to help you find the triggers, causes and patterns that impact your mental health. By filling out the journal for just 5 minutes a day, you can discover and overcome what’s causing your anxiety by making connections between your emotions and what happens in your day.

Joy for Gratitude Journaling

Gratitude journal for Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

A gratitude journal is a diary of things for which someone is grateful. Keeping a gratitude journal is a popular practice in the field of positive psychology. It is also referred to as “counting one's blessings” or “three good things”. A journal such as this will promote a more positive mindset.

Lack of sunlight can affect sleep patterns

During the winter season, the lack of natural sunlight can disrupt our body's internal clock, also known as our circadian rhythm. This disruption can lead to changes in our sleep patterns. Some individuals with SAD may experience hypersomnia, or excessive sleepiness, where they feel the need to sleep for longer periods or take frequent naps throughout the day. Feeling constantly fatigued despite getting sufficient sleep is a telltale sign that SAD may be affecting your sleep patterns.

On the other hand, some individuals may find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep at night. Insomnia, or trouble sleeping, can be a frustrating symptom of SAD. This might mean struggling to fall asleep despite feeling tired, waking up frequently throughout the night, or waking up earlier than desired in the morning. These disruptions can leave you feeling groggy, irritable, and lacking the energy you need to tackle the day ahead.

It's important to note that changes in sleep patterns alone are not enough to diagnose SAD. However, they can indicate a potential correlation and should not be ignored, especially if accompanied by other symptoms such as feelings of sadness, low energy, or changes in appetite. Understanding the relationship between SAD and sleep patterns can help you recognize if your winter blues might be something more significant.

If you suspect that SAD is impacting your sleep patterns, there are steps you can take to improve your sleep hygiene:

  • Incorporating a consistent sleep schedule

  • Ensuring your sleep environment is dark and comfortable

  • Limiting exposure to electronic devices before bed

Seeking professional help from a healthcare provider or therapist can provide you with the necessary guidance and support to manage SAD and its effects on your sleep. By addressing changes in sleep patterns, you can take a proactive approach to managing SAD and promote a more restful winter season.

Increased Fatigue and Lack of Energy

Understanding the impact of seasonal affective disorder on sleep patterns is essential, as it often goes hand in hand with increased fatigue and a lack of energy. When SAD affects your mood and overall well-being, it can also lead to a significant decrease in energy levels. You may find yourself feeling more tired and lethargic than usual, struggling to gather the motivation to engage in your daily activities.

The combination of disrupted sleep patterns and the physical and emotional toll of SAD can leave you feeling drained and depleted throughout the day. Even getting out of bed in the morning can feel like an uphill battle, and your energy reserves may be easily depleted, leading to a constant state of fatigue.

If you're experiencing increased fatigue and a lack of energy during the winter months, it's essential to acknowledge these symptoms as potential signs of SAD. By recognizing and addressing these issues, you can take steps towards managing the disorder more effectively.

Intense Cravings for Carbohydrates and Sugary Foods

Intense cravings for carbohydrates and sugary foods are another common symptom of Seasonal Affective Disorder. When the cold weather sets in and the days become shorter, many people find themselves reaching for comfort foods high in carbs and sugar. This can be a result of the body's attempt to increase serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter linked to mood and appetite regulation.

While indulging in these cravings may provide temporary relief and even a brief surge in energy, it's important to understand that this is merely a temporary fix. Consuming excessive amounts of carbs and sugar can lead to a crash in energy levels shortly after, leaving you feeling even more tired and lethargic. Additionally, these types of foods can contribute to weight gain and other negative health effects if consumed in excess.

For more information about how diet can affect your mental health try reading our recent blog:

If you start to feel you need that sugar rush more regularly than normal try:

  • Introducing a balanced diet plan that includes plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins

  • Regular exercise

  • Increased your exposure to natural light

  • Monitor your sleep schedule

By being mindful of your food choices and prioritizing healthy options, you can better manage your energy levels and support your mental well-being.

Difficulty Concentrating and Foggy Thinking

One of the lesser-known symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder is the impact it can have on cognitive function. Many people with SAD experience difficulty concentrating and find that their thinking becomes foggy during the winter months. It can feel like your brain is:

  • Operating at a slower pace

  • Making it harder to focus

  • Remember things

  • Make decisions

The exact reason behind this cognitive decline in SAD is not fully understood, but researchers believe it could be linked to the disrupted circadian rhythm and reduced serotonin levels characteristic of the disorder. The circadian rhythm, often referred to as our internal biological clock, regulates various bodily functions, including sleep-wake cycles and cognitive processes. When this rhythm is thrown off balance due to decreased exposure to natural light, it can lead to cognitive difficulties.

Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in regulating mood, also affects cognitive function. Lower levels of serotonin have been associated with decreased attention, memory problems, and slower cognitive processing. In individuals with SAD, reduced sunlight exposure can contribute to decreased serotonin production, exacerbating these cognitive issues.

If you find yourself struggling with difficulty concentrating and foggy thinking during the winter months, there are steps you can take to alleviate these symptoms. Similar to managing other aspects of SAD, incorporating healthy lifestyle habits can make a significant difference in improving cognitive function.

Ways to increase serotonin levels

  • Regular exercise is beneficial not just for boosting mood but also for enhancing cognitive performance. Engaging in physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, delivering essential nutrients and oxygen that promote optimal cognitive function. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or biking, on most days of the week.

  • Exposing yourself to natural light whenever possible can help regulate your circadian rhythm and improve cognitive function. Try to spend time outdoors during daylight hours or position yourself near windows to maximize light exposure. If natural light is limited, consider using light therapy devices that mimic the effects of sunlight.

This might help!

Thereapy lamp for Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

This medically certified light therapy lamp from Beurer can help lift your mood, enhance your focus and increase your motivation. Thanks to its LED technology, the TL50 offers flicker-free and even illumination that's effective at a distance between 15 and 35cm. Thanks to its compact size and elegant design, the TL50 is easy to place in your home or office without being intrusive.

Engaging in light therapy, where you expose yourself to artificial light that mimics natural sunlight, can be particularly effective in regulating your circadian rhythm and improving your mood. Additionally, practising stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, exercise, or spending time in nature can help stabilize your emotions and promote a sense of calm.

  • Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is crucial for optimal cognitive function. Establish a regular bedtime routine and aim for seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night. Avoiding screens and stimulating activities before bed can also contribute to better sleep and sharper cognitive abilities.

By addressing difficulty concentrating and foggy thinking with these lifestyle strategies, you can take proactive steps to combat the cognitive effects of SAD.

Loss of Interest in Activities and Social Withdrawal

Seasonal Affective Disorder not only takes a toll on your cognitive abilities but can also dampen your enthusiasm for things you once enjoyed. If you find yourself suddenly uninterested in activities you used to love, or if your desire to engage with others has waned, it may be a sign that SAD is affecting you.

One of the hallmark signs of SAD is the loss of interest in activities that usually bring you pleasure. Hobbies, sports, socializing with friends, or even engaging in everyday tasks may feel like burdensome chores. It's as if the vibrant colours have been drained from your life, leaving everything in a monochromatic haze. This shift in interest can be puzzling and frustrating, as you may wonder why you can no longer find joy in the things that used to bring you happiness.

Be aware of the following actions:

  • Cancelling plans with friends

  • Avoiding social gatherings

  • Spending excessive amounts of time alone.

  • A desire for isolation

As the days grow shorter and colder, the motivation to step outside your comfort zone and engage socially diminishes.

It's important to remember that loss of interest in activities and social withdrawal are not personal failings or signs of weakness. Rather, they are symptoms of a condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Recognizing these signs and understanding their connection to SAD can provide comfort and assurance that you are not alone in your experience.

Irritability and Mood Swings

Another common symptom of SAD is irritability and mood swings. These emotional shifts can be perplexing and frustrating, but understanding their connection to SAD can provide valuable insights and help you navigate through the challenges that may arise during the darker months.

When the winter blues set in, it's not uncommon to find yourself feeling irritable or having sudden and unexplained mood swings. Things that would typically roll off your back might suddenly become major sources of irritation. The smallest inconveniences can feel overwhelming, and your patience may wear thin faster than usual. While it may be tempting to dismiss these mood swings as mere personality quirks or the result of external stressors, they can actually be a direct result of SAD.

The lack of sunlight and shorter days during the winter can disrupt your body's internal clock, also known as the circadian rhythm. This disruption can lead to changes in the production of certain hormones and neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which plays a crucial role in regulating mood. As serotonin levels drop, it can contribute to feelings of irritability, moodiness, and even depression.

You may want to try mood stabilising aids through these difficult months such as:

Moods cards for Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

These mood cards will provide challenges and daily motivation to keep you in a positive routine. The set contains 20 practical activities that can be done in a few minutes, but have a long-lasting impact as they teach you to focus on the bright side of things and support you in facing daily challenges with a positive attitude.

Emotiwheel for Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

A pocket-sized swatch book full of inspiring, comforting, and helpful quotes based on your requirements whether you need (confidence, motivation, or clarity) or you are feeling a certain way (worried, overwhelmed, or anxious) and need a bit of a "pick me up"

Designed on a pivot, our Emotiwheel is colour-coded into groups of 10 quotes and double-sided for efficiency. Simple roll to your desired section and get inspired!

Feeling Hopeless and Despair

One of the hallmark signs of SAD is a persistent feeling of sadness that seems to permeate every aspect of life. Tasks that were previously enjoyable may suddenly feel burdensome, and even the simplest of activities can feel like insurmountable challenges.

The despair that often accompanies SAD is not merely a fleeting emotion—rather, it can become an entrenched state of mind. Individuals may find themselves caught in a cycle of negative thoughts, struggling to see a way out. The weight of this despair can be overwhelming, impacting one's ability to function in everyday life and affecting relationships, work, and overall well-being.

It's important to remember that recognizing these emotional changes as symptoms of SAD is just the first step towards finding effective solutions. Through a holistic approach that combines therapy, support networks, and self-care practices, individuals can begin to lift the heavy weight of despair and cultivate a sense of hope and resilience.

In conclusion, recognizing the signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder is crucial for managing and improving your mental health during the winter months. From changes in sleep patterns to intense cravings for carbohydrates and sugary foods, the surprising symptoms mentioned in this article shed light on the hidden struggles of SAD. But the good news is that you don't have to suffer in silence. Seek professional help or explore coping strategies to take control of your well-being.

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