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Seasonal Affective Disorder: Unraveling its Impact on Complex Trauma


December is Seasonal Affective Disorder Awareness Month. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that typically occurs during fall and winter. It is believed to be related to changes in light exposure and may result from disruptions in the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythms) and alterations in neurotransmitter levels, such as serotonin.

What happens when SAD is coupled with complex trauma? The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) defines complex trauma as “children’s experiences of multiple traumatic events that occur within the social environment that is supposed to be the source of safety and stability in a child’s life.” Benchmarks’ Standardized Assessment Protocol (SAP) partners with agencies that work with children who have experienced complex trauma, such as children in foster care.  The instability of the early experiences of children in foster care, which often include abuse, neglect, and separation from their biological families, can lead to a range of emotional and behavioral challenges. Children with complex trauma often struggle with symptoms like flashbacks, anxiety, depression, and difficulties forming secure attachments. When SAD is added to the equation, it can compound their psychological distress. The onset of SAD can deepen the children’s already fragile self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness, which often stem from their past experiences of abandonment and mistreatment. SAD can exacerbate feelings of isolation, making it more difficult for children in foster care to connect with their caregivers and form positive relationships.

Evidence-based treatments for SAD can be beneficial in mitigating its impact on children with complex trauma. While not evidence-based, the primary treatment for SAD is light therapy, which involves artificial light exposure via a light box. Light therapy appears to be successful in alleviating symptoms for most individuals. Some individuals resort to vitamin D supplements, but it is unclear whether this supplementation effectively relieves SAD symptoms. The only evidence-based treatment that has proven effective in treating SAD is Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), during which children can learn strategies to reframe negative thought patterns and develop coping mechanisms to manage SAD symptoms. CBT can be tailored to address the unique challenges faced by children in foster care with complex trauma, helping them build resilience and emotional regulation skills.

Understanding how SAD interacts with complex trauma is crucial for social workers and caregivers. Knowledge of how SAD and complex trauma interact empowers both social workers and caregivers to create targeted interventions, enhancing their effectiveness in promoting mental health and well-being. A social worker's or caregiver’s awareness of the interplay between SAD and complex trauma can aid in identifying seasonal triggers, enabling timely assistance and proactive support to mitigate the impact of seasonal changes on children in foster care. This understanding and awareness also enable proactive crisis prevention by implementing strategies and support systems that address both SAD and complex trauma for social workers and caregivers. 

In summary, children in foster care with complex trauma are particularly susceptible to the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. The interaction of these two conditions can make it even more challenging for them to heal and develop secure attachments. Implementing CBT as an evidence-based treatment for SAD, along with the support of their social workers and caregivers, can provide these children with the support and stability they need to navigate the complicated interplay of complex trauma and SAD, ultimately fostering their emotional well-being and recovery.


The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. 2020. The Child Welfare Trauma Training Toolkit: Trauma 101 Training.

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