Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

As we see the summer sun fade away, the rainy days and grey skies set in, you might notice that you feel low in mood, sluggish, or see a change in your appetite. This is completely normal around this time of year as many of us suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What are the causes of SAD?

There are a lot of theories as to why we experience SAD, however the exact cause isn’t fully understood. But it’s often linked to the reduction of natural sunlight that we are exposed to during the autumn and winter months.

The main cause is that the lack of sunlight might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly, which may affect the:

  • production of melatonin – melatonin is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy; in people with SAD, the body may produce it in higher than normal levels
  • production of serotonin – serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, appetite, and sleep; a lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression
  • body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) – your body uses sunlight to time various important functions, such as when you wake up, so lower light levels during the winter may disrupt your body clock and lead to symptoms of SAD

SAD is commonly viewed as a type of depression, often called the “winter depression”, because the symptoms usually happen throughout the autumn and winter months.

As the days get shorter and the sun sets earlier in the day, we lose natural light that releases serotine in the brain, which is associated to boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused. So, when we lose more natural light, more of us feel the impact of the symptoms of SAD, which can affect your mood, concentration, appetite, and motivation.

Who does it affect?

It can affect anyone, however those who live in more northern areas above the equator tend to experience the effects more. Considering that we receive less than 8 hours of sunlight on our shortest day (22nd December), it’s important to become familiar with the symptoms and treatments for SAD. Around 1 in 15 people in the UK, suffer with SAD between the months of September and April, and people aged between 18 – 30 most commonly experience the symptoms of SAD. 

What are the Symptoms?

To be able to cope with the effects of SAD, we first need to look at the symptoms. They are very similar to that of depression, including:

  • Feeling lethargic
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Reduction or increase in appetite, many people crave carbohydrates and can gain weight
  • A persistent low mood
  • Disrupted sleeping pattern (insomnia is common)
  • Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless

These symptoms can be severe for some people and can have a significant impact on their day-to-day life.

Read more about the symptoms of SAD.

It’s also possible that some people are more vulnerable to SAD as a result of their genes, as some cases appear to run in families.

Tips to help you live with SAD

  1. Get as much natural sunlight as possible – during the day, whether at work or at home, try and sit close to a window and make your environment as naturally bright as possible. If you can, try going outside for a break, and think about using light bulbs that mimic natural daylight.
  • Exercise outdoors and eat well – as well as getting as much natural light as possible, going outdoors, being more active, and eating the right foods that are rich in a variety of vitamins is a great combination to ward off the symptoms of depression. Exercising produces endorphins in the brain (feelings of happiness), so try to take a walk at lunchtime, play a sport with a friend – being active in a way you enjoy means you’ll be more likely to do it.

For more inspiration on food that can boost your mood have a read of this insightful article.

  • Maintain social interaction  – it can be really tempting to stay in on your own and get cozy on the sofa for long periods of time but planning to see friends or family is a great way to structure your day and avoid loneliness and negatives thoughts or feelings. Even during the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to follow the government’s guidelines, but where possible try to see your family or friends, either in person or via video calls to maintain social contact.
  • Get up and get out of bed – look we have all been there, knocking off the alarm clock (or hitting the snooze button on your phone in most cases nowadays) and getting a few more hours in bed. The working week can take its toll on you and having a lay in can seem like a good idea. However, during the autumn and winter months staying in bed too long will limit your exposure to light, and your eyes need to take in light to withhold serotine (a chemical in the brain which ‘lifts’ your mood).
  • Acknowledge your feelings – sticking your head in the sand and saying, “I’m fine”, will not help. If you are experiencing the symptoms of SAD, and they are starting to have a negative effect on your life, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP for further help and support.

Dr Natasha Bijlani (Consultant Psychiatrist, The Priory Hospital, London) explains: “Some patients may benefit from antidepressant medication and talking treatments, such as psychotherapy, which help sufferers accept their illness and learn coping strategies.”

Hopefully, you can now identify the signs and symptoms of SAD and are able to use these helpful tips to cope with it.

For more detailed help and advice visit the NHS or Mind website, and don’t forget to visit your GP if you feel the symptoms are becoming more severe and negatively impacting your day-today-day activities.