September 21, 2022

Seasonal Affective Disorder vs. Depression: How to Tell the Difference 

seasonal affective disorder vs depression

Clinically reviewed by Dr. Imran Iqbal, MD.

Two similar but separate mood disorders that can cause persistent feelings of unhappiness, hopelessness, and other symptoms are seasonal affective disorder and depression. It’s important to know how to identify these conditions and seek treatment for them if needed.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression triggered by the change of seasons. It most often occurs in late autumn or early winter. 

SAD symptoms include:

  • Depressed mood most or all days
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities 
  • Lack of energy 
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Sleep disturbances, particularly oversleeping
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Thoughts about not wanting to live
  • Weight gain 

Researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes SAD. However, they believe that the decrease in sunlight may affect serotonin and melatonin levels in the brain.

Occasional feelings of sadness are normal, and many people experience the “winter blues” as the weather gets colder. But SAD is different and should be treated. 

If you feel depressed for multiple consecutive days — whether around the change of seasons or not — you should talk with your doctor. And if you have suicidal thoughts, you should contact a trusted friend or family member or call 988 (the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline) or 911.

What Is Depression?

Also called clinical depression or major depressive disorder, depression is a mood disorder that causes you to feel sad or depressed all the time. Specifically, doctors define it as a condition where you have five or more of the following symptoms for two weeks or more:

  • Depressed mood
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Loss of interest in your usual activities
  • Feeling tired
  • Having trouble focusing or concentrating
  • Restlessness
  • Feeling pessimistic or hopeless
  • Having memory problems or difficulty making decisions
  • Persistent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Getting too much or too little sleep

Depression is a complicated mood disorder that may be caused by several factors, including genetics, stressful life events, and faulty mood regulation. 

As with SAD, if you’re depressed and have suicidal thoughts, you should contact a friend or family member or call 988 (the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline) or 911.

What Are the Differences Between Seasonal Affective Disorder and Depression?

SAD and depression have similar symptoms. Doctors distinguish between the two primarily by the timing of symptom onset. They may diagnose you with seasonal affective disorder if:

  • Your symptoms begin or worsen significantly in the late fall or early winter
  • The intensity of symptoms in fall/winter significantly outweighs nonseasonal symptoms
  • You’ve experienced a seasonal increase in symptoms for two or more consecutive years

But, of course, you don’t have to wait two years to talk with your doctor. Contact them if you ever feel your depressed mood is persistent and affecting your quality of life. 

Treatment Options for SAD and Depression

Doctors can’t cure SAD or depression. However, they can prescribe treatments that successfully control the symptoms, including:

  • Talk therapy (also called psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT)
  • Light therapy (or phototherapy) involving regular exposure to a special bright light source
  • Medication

There are also environmental and lifestyle changes you can make to help minimize your symptoms. They include getting plenty of sunlight, especially during the winter, by going outside frequently, opening your curtains or blinds, etc. Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and striving to get approximately eight hours of sleep nightly can also help. 

SAD and Depression Are Manageable Conditions

If you experience SAD or depression, your doctor can help you manage the condition. The key is to take the first step and contact them. 

Neither SAD nor depression is something you should just “deal with” on your own. You should seek treatment. 

Learn About Behavioral Health Services at Baptist Health

Baptist Health offers world-class behavior health services. Get details today and contact us if you have questions about seasonal depression vs. depression or need treatment. 

Learn More.