Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common mood disorder that occurs during the autumn and winter months of the year. Luckily there are lots of things you can do to beat SAD and ease the distressing symptoms. In our guide to dealing with SAD, we cover:
- Symptoms and signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Causes of SAD and mental health risk factors
- Advice, tips and tricks to ease symptoms and help you get back on track
From sun lamps and lightboxes to diet and exercise, keep reading to find out exactly how you can take control of Seasonal Affective Disorder this autumn!
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
So, what’s the truth behind the winter blues? And why does it affect so many of us each year? Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that affects people’s mental health in the autumn and winter months when there is less natural sunlight. This seasonal depression is similar to normal mild-moderate depression but occurs at a specific time each year.
Depression is a mood disorder that affects millions of people in the UK. It can have many causes, including genetics, brain structure, environment, and your development as a child. However, SAD changes with the seasons, indicating a drop in neurotransmitters as a likely cause.
Serotonin is one of the ‘happy’ neurotransmitters thought to play a vital role in maintaining good levels of mental health. It’s used to carry messages from one area of the brain to another and is believed to regulate many different functions. These include mood regulation, appetite, sleep, memory and learning. A prolonged lack of serotonin has been associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, panic disorders, and depression.
As we move into the autumn and winter months, the number of daylight hours drops, and the sunlight is less intense. This reduced exposure to sunlight can cause our bodies to produce less serotonin, leading to Seasonal Affective Disorder. At the same time, reduced sun exposure leads to a reduction in vitamin D production, which is also linked with low mood and depression.
Symptoms and signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are no universal symptoms that everyone suffering from SAD experiences. You might only experience one or two symptoms. However, if those are depression and anxiety, SAD can still feel all-encompassing and overwhelming.
Some of the signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder include:
- Feeling depressed and low
- Feelings of hopelessness and despair
- Increased stress and anxiety levels
- Loss of interest in activities or work
- Feeling tired more than usual or fatigue
- Sleep disturbances and insomnia
- Changes in appetite
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Difficulty concentrating
- Use of drugs or alcohol
- Reduced sex drive
This list is not exhaustive, and some of those suffering from SAD experience other symptoms, not on the list. Also, many of the symptoms fit other mood disorders too. That’s why we recommend you contact your doctor if you think you might be suffering from SAD.
How is Seasonal Affective Disorder treated?
Once diagnosed, your doctor may recommend a wide range of treatment options. These might include lifestyle changes or psychotherapy. While there is no one-solution-fits-all solution, counselling and psychotherapy are often helpful ways to manage SAD.
Counselling or talking therapy
Talking therapy provides a safe, confidential space for you to speak openly about any problems you are going through. As you talk through the things that are troubling you, they often become more manageable, and new insights develop, helping you cope.
Even if the changing seasons are responsible for your mood, deeper emotions bubbling under the surface may become triggered. Counselling can help you recognise, process and resolved such underlying issues.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
CBT is an evidence-based approach to therapy used to treat depression, anxiety, obsessions and compulsions, and much more. CBT looks at the links between thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It helps identify and change unhelpful cycles of thoughts and behaviours that can fuel anxiety or depression.
A CBT therapist will help you identify negative thought loops and help you develop practical ways to manage and overcome them.
Vitamin D has long been associated with depression, and it is difficult for our bodies to synthesise in the autumn and winter. As a result, taking supplementary vitamin D before the winter months may help prevent SAD or reduce the symptoms of depression. While vitamin D is widely available, we recommend you consult your GP before taking any medication.
While antidepressants do not treat the cause of depression, they can be effective at reducing symptoms. SAD is slightly different from general depression as, in theory, it could be rectified by replenishing the brain’s serotonin.
Luckily, there are many lifestyle changes you can make that could significantly lift your mood, making SAD much more manageable. So, antidepressants aren’t needed.
How to get rid of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Get more sunlight
One of the easiest ways to recover from SAD is by treating the root cause, which is usually a lack of sunlight. Try and get as much natural sunlight as possible by taking walks more often or spending time in the garden or local park. If you spend a lot of time indoors, try and sit near windows whenever you can.
But, getting enough sunlight isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially in the UK, and can be a daunting prospect for those who are depressed. Some people that experience SAD find a lightbox to be an effective form of treatment. Half an hour or so spent sitting by a lightbox in the morning can increase serotonin, reduce melatonin (the sleep-signal hormone) and improve mood.
If you are thinking of using a lightbox (also known as a ‘SAD lamp’), it’s essential to pick one that is bright enough (rated at least 10,000 lux). These lamps are much brighter than most indoor bulbs, so you don’t need to look directly at the lamp for it to work. You could try using it whilst reading a book or drinking your morning coffee.
However, light therapy is not suitable for everyone. Please speak to your GP to ensure it would be a safe option for you.
Exercise more often
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and depression in general, can make it challenging to get a healthy amount of exercise. When you lack the motivation to get out of bed or see no point in doing anything at all, it’s completely understandable that exercise is the last thing on your mind.
However, if you can get enough motivation to take that first step outdoors, exercise can be highly effective as a SAD treatment option. Not only will it increase your exposure to sunlight, but it will also help shift your focus from internal to external. Exercise can also get the body to release happy, feel-good chemicals like endorphins.
Even better if you can get out into nature, as this has been shown to lift people’s moods and help with depression.
Here’s the key to exercising if you feel depressed: don’t set yourself unreasonable goals.
If you don’t feel like a long walk, take a short one around the block. If you don’t think you can go for a walk at all, do a few laps of the garden, paying extra attention to nature. Start small, stick to what you enjoy and do it as regularly as you can. Start small and build up as you are ready.
Get sufficient sleep
For a long time, lack of sleep has been associated with poor mental health and mood regulation – after all, that’s why the term ‘woke up on the wrong side of the bed’ exists.
So, how does sleep affect mental health?
Poor sleep and depression can lead to a vicious cycle. Anxious thoughts and strong negative feelings can prevent sleep, while lack of sleep can worsen the depression as your brain doesn’t get long enough to recover.
Your body relies on several stages of sleep for normal brain function, including light, deep, and REM sleep. If the brain doesn’t get enough time in these sleep states, severe health problems can arise. These include mental health issues such as depression, and physical problems such as heart disease and diabetes.
Always remember the basics, and good sleep should eventually follow:
- Sleep in a cool, dark room
- Go to sleep at the same time every night
- Avoid using tech a few hours before bed
- Change your mattress every eight years
- Don’t eat 2-4hrs before bed
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol, especially in the afternoon/evening.
SAD is known to cause insomnia in some cases, so if you still can’t sleep, your doctor may prescribe medication or suggest other treatment methods to help you.
Get professional help
Many people struggling with depression, including seasonal affective disorder (SAD) find that counselling helps. You can self-refer to NHS services such as talk Liverpool or Access Sefton, seek counselling through the charitable sector or though private organisations such as Counselling Matters. If you would like to know more about the services we offer please call 0151 329 3637 for a free, no obligation chat. We would be glad to help.