November 3rd, 2020

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): What is it? Do I have it? What can I do about it?

By Dan Whale

  • Adjustment Disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Therapy

2020 has undoubtedly thrown some curveballs at our mental health. In all parts of the world we’ve seen unforeseen challenges, with lockdowns and economic troubles leading to increases in anxiety and depression.

Whilst we’ve perhaps become better at checking in on the mental health of our friends and family, and examples of great compassion (such as food outlets offering free lunch meals to disadvantaged children) have given us a boost, many would agree that this year has been a tough one.

Yet amongst all this uncertainty, many of us are beginning to face a more familiar foe. One which has troubled generations before us - the winter.

What is SAD?

SAD is a form of a depression which follows a seasonal pattern. Some people experience their depressive phase in the summer and have a better mood in the winter, though this is very rare. For most that experience SAD, symptoms occur during the winter period.

We should make clear here that winter is not synonymous with low mood. Lots of people would describe winter as their favourite season: crisp air, keeping warm inside and festive activities. But for those with SAD, winter can be a more challenging prospect.

How do I know if I have SAD?

If you have a history of feeling more depressed during the winter months, you may be affected by SAD. The following are the most common symptoms associated to the disorder:

  • Persistent low mood
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • Feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
  • Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

If the above sounds familiar, you should speak to your GP. There are several different treatment options available for SAD.

What causes SAD?

The causes of SAD are not yet fully understood by medical science, but there are a few factors thought to be the most likely contributors. These factors all relate to the lower levels of sunlight experienced in winter, which impacts:

  • Melatonin levels: Melatonin is a hormone which makes you feel sleepy. It is thought that those experiencing SAD may naturally produce more melatonin during winter.
  • Serotonin levels: Serotonin is the hormone which leads to positive mood and also affects appetite and sleep. Lower sunlight levels can cause lower serotonin production and therefore lead to depression.
  • Circadian Rhythm (your body clock): Lower levels of sunlight can disrupt your body clock and therefore your sleeping patterns, which in turn can cause the symptoms of SAD.

How to treat SAD

Currently the advised treatment for SAD is predominantly the same as treatment for any other kind of depression. CBT has been shown to be effective and antidepressants are an additional option that you can discuss with your GP.

A more specific form of treatment is Light Therapy, in which you sit by a special lamp called a light box for around 30 minutes each day. This approach aims to replicate the benefits lost through lower levels of sunlight and is becoming very popular, though its effectiveness has not yet been thoroughly tested.

There are also certain techniques you can try yourself to help limit the impact of SAD.

  • Try to get as much natural light as possible. Open the curtains as soon as you wake up even if you are staying in bed, and try to get a walk in at some point each day - you’d be surprised how much this can help.
  • Make your home and work environments as light and airy as possible - sit near windows in the daytime if you can.
  • Exercise has always been proven to be one of the most effective ways to boost our mood. When the weather gets colder this becomes harder to do, but if you can make time even for just a brisk walk you can see improvement.
  • Try to avoid slipping into an unhealthy diet when you’re feeling low, this will only make things harder. If you can stick to regular, healthy meals. Nutrient-rich food can give a big boost to your mood.

When experiencing SAD it can be difficult to get started with the above advice. If you’re finding that’s the case for you, you may want to consider therapy. We can connect you to a therapist who specialises in treating SAD and set up video sessions at a time which works for you.

If you’d like to know more, contact us at hello@helloself.com.

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