Coping with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Coping with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Feeling down, irritable or tired every now and then is common during the winter months, due to shorter days, longer nights and colder weather. However, if these feelings recur every year and then subside in spring or early summer, this may be seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

What is seasonal affective disorder?

SAD is a form of depression which occurs at the same time each year. Although it’s most common during the winter, some people do experience it in the summer.

The signs and symptoms of the disorder are the same as those for major depression and it can therefore affect your health, relationships, work and everyday life. You may notice a change in your mood, sleeping patterns, appetite and energy levels. Many people who suffer from SAD say that they feel like a completely different person to who they are in the summer.

Symptoms of SAD

The severity of the symptoms can vary from person to person and they can come and go. For many, the signs of seasonal affective disorder typically start mildly and by the time we’re in the depths of winter, they increase in severity. By spring or early summer, the symptoms start to ease off again.

The most common signs of SAD include:

  • Lacking energy all the time
  • Feeling depressed
  • Low self-esteem
  • No interest in socialising
  • Feeling hopeless, sad, tense or stressed
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in activities you normally love
  • Sleeping all the time or struggling sleep
  • Changes in appetite and craving sugary and starchy foods
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Turning to drugs, alcohol or other destructive behaviours for comfort or escapism
  • Experiencing these feelings at a particular time of the year.

What causes SAD?

Most theories attribute the cause of SAD to the reduction in the amount of daylight we get in winter. Shorter days and a lack of exposure to sunlight has been found to affect the body in a number of ways which is why it’s more common to suffer from SAD in winter rather than summer.

Our body’s internal clock responds to changes between light and dark and this helps us to regulate our sleep, mood and appetite. The shorter days we experience in winter can disrupt this which leaves us feeling groggy, disorientated and tired. Naturally, this has an impact on our mood.

When it’s dark, the brain produces melatonin to help us sleep. During the day, sunlight triggers the brain to stop producing melatonin so that we feel awake and alert. With the short days and long nights, our body can produce too much melatonin, leaving us feeling drowsy and lacking energy.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that our body produces in order to regulate our moods. Reduced sunlight can lower the body’s production of this and a deficit can lead to depression as well as have an impact on our sleep, appetite, memory and sexual desire.

What to do if you think you may have SAD

  • Natural light – take a short walk outside, open blinds and curtains and sit near a window when you’re inside. Lack of vitamin D is part of the cause.
  • Try to exercise - exercising releases endorphins and serotonin which is a natural mood enhancer.
  • Eat the right foods - maintain a healthy diet and eat foods rich in certain omega-3 fats which can help to improve mood. Oily fish, walnuts and flaxseeds are just a few examples.
  • Try some relaxation techniques - such as practicing mindfulness, meditating, or yoga.
  • Speak to your doctor - they will be able to discuss medication and treatment options with you.
  • Do something that makes you feel good - whether it’s taking up a new hobby or signing up for volunteer work.
  • Take the time to research SAD - so you can understand exactly what it is and how you can manage it.

In order to be clinically diagnosed with SAD, you need to have experienced the symptoms for two or more years – but this does not mean you have to suffer with it until then. As well as the above, getting into a proper sleeping routine, see friends no matter how much you don’t feel like it, and consider counselling or joining a support group.

If you would like more information about seasonal affective disorder or would like to discuss the treatment options available, please feel free to contact Life Works and we will be more than happy to help. 

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