We’re approaching the fall and winter months, and for some people that means we’re approaching SAD seasons—“SAD” as in seasonal affective disorder. SAD affects many people throughout the year and in different ways, but for gamers with SAD, some of those effects can be more acute. Let’s discuss.

What is SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder, or “SAD”, is a form of seasonal depression. Typically, people who experience SAD start having symptoms of depression in the colder months, beginning in late fall and going through winter, but the symptoms subside in the warmer months. Some people do experience SAD in the spring and summer, although that is much less common. The symptoms are similar to those you’d experience with depression, such as:

  • Feeling depressed during most of the day, and on most days
  • Having low energy
  • Having difficulty falling and/or staying asleep
  • Struggling to concentrate or stay focused
  • Feeling lethargic or irritable
  • Feeling anxious, hopeless, worthless, or full of shame and guilt
  • Changes in weight or appetite

What causes SAD?

There is no singular known cause of seasonal affective disorder, however, there are several factors that can contribute to its onset. For one, in the fall and winter months, having fewer hours of sunlight can have a dysregulating effect on the body’s internal clock, which can lead to depression, loss of energy, and mood swings. Additionally, the loss of daylight hours tends to mean people get less vitamin D. Since vitamin D is a mood-booster for us, keeping up our serotonin levels, a drop in the amount of vitamin D we get can also really drop our mood. Lastly, just as the move to fall and winter can interrupt our body’s internal clock, the season change can also correspondingly interrupt our body’s production of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin’s biggest job is acting as a regulator of our sleep-wake cycles, so if our body stops producing as much of it, or if its production pattern changes, so too does our sleep pattern.

How does this apply to gamers?

Well, it applies in a few ways. First of all, many gamers struggle with sleep already—65.9% of gamers, in fact, according to our 2020 “Win Well” Gamers Health survey. Some of this is because gamers typically go to bed later, which can affect our sleep-wake cycles and how much deep, non-REM sleep we get. And some of this comes from the amount of artificial blue light gamers are exposed to, since blue light also plays a role in our sleep-wake regulation and can negatively impact our body’s melatonin production if we’re exposed to too much of it. So, those gamers who have seasonal affective disorder may be doubly affected, causing less and less sleep and ultimately worsening their symptoms of SAD.

It’s also true that people tend to play more video games during the winter months, which can have both good and bad connotations for gamers with SAD. On the one hand, more time video gaming can mean an increase in artificial blue light, an increase in sedentary activity, and pushed bedtimes, which can all lead to worse sleep—again, thereby increasing the negative effects of something like SAD.

On the other hand, there is research showing that action video games can actually help combat symptoms of depression. Cognitive deficit is a common symptom among patients with depression, but because gaming has positive impacts on cognition, it can alleviate symptoms for those with SAD. But it’s not just action video games that can help depression; other studies have shown that casual video games that are more laid back and easy to play can also improve mood and symptoms of depression and anxiety. In fact, there are a whole host of ways gaming can improve mood and boost happiness, including the socialization factor—the gaming community is strong and many feel a great sense of connection and belonging—as well as the sense of accomplishment, learning, and playfulness that can result.

The asterisk for addiction

The caveat to the findings from these studies is that gaming can conversely lead or significantly contribute to the onset of depression or SAD in players who have developed a gaming addiction. For those who are currently working through a gaming addiction, or who have had one in the past, it is not recommended to use games as a way to combat depression, anxiety, SAD, or related disorders.

How to combat SAD

As we said above, with the exception of gamers working through a gaming addiction, for some people, gaming can actually improve your symptoms of SAD. Some gamers might find that they need to play more action-packed games to boost their moods, while others might find that casual games are better for them during the months they experience SAD. But either way, gaming might be one thing to actually help improve your symptoms.

However, there are other things you can also do, such as:

  • Sit in a well-lit room during the day or take a break for a midday walk outside in the daylight.
  • Buy a SAD lamp to help boost you in the morning.
  • Exercise.
  • Eat a well-rounded, healthy diet.
  • Talk to a mental health professional.

And finally, in a combination of the two, if gaming helps you with SAD symptoms, but you still struggle to maintain a good sleep schedule, we recommend adjusting your gaming hours. Try to end your gaming earlier in the evening, and/or reduce your gaming hours slightly, so that the negative effects you might experience from things like a late bedtime or overexposure to artificial blue light are lessened and therefore less likely to impact your sleep.

If you’ve found relief from symptoms of SAD, what’s worked for you?