Seasonal affective disorder - when seasons make you SAD

About one in 50 people in the UK suffers from SAD, with four times more women than men being affected, and it often runs in families.

The nights are drawing in, the days are getting colder - doesn't everyone feel a little less full of the 'joys of spring'? Huge numbers of us - perhaps as many as one in eight - really do feel less cheerful in winter. For some people, it goes further. If you suffer from Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), winter signals the onset of real depression. Fortunately, there is effective treatment - and it may be as simple as 'sunshine in a box'.

What is SAD?

In SAD, you get symptoms of depression at certain times of year. In Britain, the symptoms usually start in September to November, and go on until spring.

Who gets SAD?

About one in 50 people in the UK suffers from SAD, with four times more women than men being affected. It often runs in families. People living in hotter countries suffer less often, and it seems to be more common in the north of the UK, particularly in parts of Scotland. You can get SAD at any age, although it's more likely to start in your 20s. Once you have it, you are at high risk of getting symptoms every year.

What are the symptoms?

Most of us have some symptoms of depression at some point. For a doctor to diagnose depression though, the symptoms have to be there most days for several weeks, and will usually interfere with your life, including your work and your social life.

They include:

  • Problems sleeping (in SAD, sleeping too much is common)
  • Changes in your appetite (in SAD, you are more likely to eat more and put on weight)
  • Feeling sad and miserable most of the time (often worse in the morning)
  • Not wanting to do anything, even things you usually enjoy
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Feeling upset and tearful
  • Feeling guilty or useless
  • Not being able to concentrate
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Feeling life isn't worth living
  • Palpitations, anxiety, and heaviness in your arms and legs

SAD - how do I help myself?

The first thing to do is to pluck up your courage and talk to your GP. They will take it seriously and they really can help. In SAD, unlike other forms of depression, light treatment (see below) can be highly effective.


Up to three quarters of people with SAD can be helped with the same tablets used to treat other kinds of depression. These tablets take up to four weeks to work, so you do need to stick with your treatment. Some antidepressants can cause side effects, including drowsiness, dry mouth and constipation or diarrhoea. However, these often wear off within a week or two. If you really can't cope with the side effects, your GP may be able to change you to one that suits you better. Your doctor may advise that you take them in future throughout the winter, starting just before your symptoms usually begin.

When help comes in a box

Light boxes provide light about ten times stronger than a normal light bulb. Doctors have discovered that many patients with SAD feel better within a few days if they spend up to three hours a day (depending on the strength of the light) in front of specially designed 'light boxes'.

You need to use your light treatment every day in the seasons you're usually affected. Unfortunately, light boxes are not available from your GP. However, for about £100 you can invest in one to keep and use at home. That way, you can read, work or do your crossword while getting your treatment.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.