What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and how to treat it!

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This Sunday 30th November, many people around the world will be see the clocks go back an hour, as daylight savings time ends.

This change usually signifies the transition to autumn and winter, as days get shorter and colder too!

Often during this change, it’s common for us to feel a bit more down and sluggish than usual but why is this? The culprit could be seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Depressed woman by window
Depressed woman by window

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a type of depression felt normally during the winter months and is often called ‘winter depression’ as a result.

Unlike chronic depression, SAD comes and goes as the seasons change and is a cyclical process throughout the year, thought to be related to the shortening of daylight we receive.

It’s thought that over 10 million people are affected by SAD in the US alone, with the number reaching approximately 2 million in the UK.

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Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Some of the main symptoms of SAD include:

  • Increased low moods during winter months
  • Loss of interest in day-to-day activities
  • Feeling lethargic or having less energy than normal
  • Changes in diet or weight gain
  • Irritability or anxiousness
  • Feelings of worthless or guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Difficulty waking up in the morning

It’s important to note that everyone’s experience may be different. Someone with SAD may feel any number of these symptoms with varying degrees of severity.

If you’re finding it difficult to cope, see a GP or doctor who should be able to help.

Do I have SAD or depression?

As SAD and depression have largely the same symptoms, it can be difficult to differentiate between the two. One key aspect however is the timing that you feel your moods change.

If you notice you are more energetic and happier over summer then that might be a sign that your moods are cyclical. Try and see if there is a pattern across a few years for when you feel depressed – if you notice its primary during winter then it could be SAD!

Elderly man with depression
Elderly man with depression

What causes SAD?

The causes of SAD aren’t fully known and can vary from person to person. It’s thought that changes to the daylight duration, temperature and even genes can impact the prevalence of SAD.

Lack of sunlight is thought to be the main cause, as it impacts the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. This part of the brain is important in:

  1. Producing melatonin – the hormone that makes you feel sleepy
  2. Producing serotonin – the hormone that affects our sleep, mood and appetite
  3. Managing our body clock

Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you struggle with SAD, thankfully there are some treatments available to help relieve your symptoms. This includes:

1: Light therapy

Purchasing a light box or SAD lamp can help replicate natural sunlight and trick our body into producing serotonin. Simply sitting in front of this lamp for 30 minutes to an hour a day can help boost your mood and improve sleep.

When looking for a SAD lamp, we recommend buying one that is 10,000 lux like this one or this one.  There are even SAD lamp alarm clocks on the market like this one from Lumie or this cheaper alternative, which helps mimic the sunrise and wakes you up gradually.

2. Changes to your lifestyle

As doctors will continually say, a healthy diet and regular exercise provides a whole host of benefits to our physical and mental wellbeing. This is true for SAD too!

Try getting outside as much as possible during daylight especially around midday to truly get the benefits. If that isn’t possible, try and sit next to a window instead.

3. Try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a form of therapy that helps us understand our thoughts, feelings and emotions. It lies on the principle that all these are connected and that we can change how we think and feel over time.

The best part is CBT can be done at home and can be free of charge! Our Cognitive Triangle notepads or Reframing Negative Thoughts notepads are a great way to get started.

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