What you can do about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Middle-age woman with Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) working at home on computer with SAD LED light (lower right) which offers relief from seasonal depression.

Winter. It can seem endless. But although many of us long for lighter nights, sunshine and warmth, for most of us it doesn’t get in the way of living our lives.

But for some, winter brings the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), with symptoms of depression which cause major difficulties and distress for sufferers.

Women using Seasonal Affective Disorder lampThe good news is, while there’s no cure, there are many things you can do to reduce the symptoms and improve your mood.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern, most common in winter and results in us feeling low.

Most of us are affected by the change in seasons. It’s normal to feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun’s shining and the days are longer and to find that we eat more, feel less sociable or sleep longer during the winter.

Once the weather turns colder, the pull of a warm duvet is stronger to overcome on cold, dark winter mornings and it can take a Herculean effort to brave blustery winds and snow flurries to get to your body pump class or go to dinner with friends in the evenings. You won’t be alone if occasionally you’ve opted to stay in by the fire with a good book or film rather than bundling up and getting out there.

However, for those who experience SAD, the change in seasons has a much greater effect on mood and energy levels which can lead to symptoms of depression. This includes struggling to cope with day-to-day tasks or going through relationship difficulties. It can take many years to spot SAD and get a diagnosis, as many forms of depression are recurring and the pattern of changing moods with the seasons may not be obvious at first.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Many of the symptoms of SAD are similar to those of depression, but will vary from person to person. They include:

  • Lack of energy for everyday tasks, feeling lethargic and finding it difficult to concentrate on study or work.
  • Sleep problems or disturbance.
  • Mood changes. Feeling low, sad, tearful, guilty, sometimes worthless, hopeless or despairing, sometimes feeling nothing at all. Some people also experience bursts of hyperactivity and cheerfulness in spring and autumn.
  • Anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Overeating, craving carbohydrates and putting on weight.
  • Being more prone to illness – some people with SAD may have a lowered immune system, leading to more colds, infections and other illnesses.
  • Low libido, loss of interest in sex or physical contact.
  • Social and relationship problems – becoming irritable, withdrawing from seeing people or difficult or abusive behaviour.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse.

What causes SAD?

We still don’t know the exact root of SAD, but some causes are thought to be:

Reduced levels of light

This can cause a dip in our hormone levels, in particular serotonin and melatonin, which in turn can cause a biochemical imbalance which affects our mood, appetite, memory, sleep and libido. Lower light levels can also disrupt our circadian rhythm, or body clock, slowing us down and leading to feelings of tiredness and depression.

Triggers from traumatic events

 If you’ve suffered a bereavement, separation, divorce, or assault, for example, it’s common to make unconscious links with that time of year. So, for example, hearing Christmas songs on the radio can trigger feelings of anxiety or depression that can seem to come out of the blue. This can be frightening, but is a common reaction. Talking this through with a trained counsellor or therapist can help.

Genetics and gender

If your family has a history of mood disorders you could be more prone. SAD is also four times more common in women than in men.

Other factors

SAD is also linked to changes diet and medication, a physical illness, use (or withdrawal from) street drugs and alcohol, so if these are a possibility check with your GP for any underlying causes.

How to tackle the symptoms of SAD: see the light

We need increasing light levels to turn melatonin production down, which helps us to wake up. Increasing our exposure to daylight can help and there are various ways we can do this in the dark winter months.

Let the sunshine in

Start with the simple things, like letting more daylight into the room first thing in the morning. Even on grey days open the curtains wide – symptoms can be worse in the mornings when you get out of bed and daylight will help your body to wake up.

Woman enjoying outdoor walk with rucksackEnjoy the great outdoors

The light is weaker in the winter months, so aim to get outside around midday, when the light is brightest. Even a short walk at lunchtime will be beneficial. Some studies have also shown that a high density of negative ions (negatively charged atoms or molecules) has a positive effect on SAD and mood generally.

Moving, splashing water such as rivers, waterfalls and beaches with crashing waves all generate plenty of negative ions, and they are also produced by plant life – think of the invigorating fresh air of gardens and forests.

Interestingly, your shower, with its splashing stream of hot water, is also a good producer of negative ions – so a refreshing shower in the mornings could help you to wake up in more ways than one.

Light box therapy

Using a SAD light box has been found to be an effective treatment for SAD, particularly first thing in the morning. It provides fairly quick, short-term relief rather than a permanent cure. Some lamps are brighter than others.

seasonal affective disorder

A 10,000 lux light can cut treatment time down to half an hour and fit better with a busy lifestyle than lower lux models. Newer boxes sometimes use LED lights which can make them lighter and more portable. It’s rare to experience any side-effects when using light therapy, but if you do then speak to your GP for advice.

If you have an eye or skin condition that makes your eyes sensitive to light, have skin cancer or a history of skin cancer or are taking any medication or herbal supplements that can make you more sensitive to light, please speak to your GP before using to check the suitability of light box therapy.

Wake up naturally

You could invest in a dawn simulator bedside lamps that mimic the dawn sunrise by gradually increasing the brightness of the light, or trying setting a SAD lightbox on a timer near the bed for an early light boost.

Lighten up

Make your home and work environment as light and airy as possible. Pale colours will reflect and maximise the available light, dark colours tend to absorb and reduce it. You could also switch some normal bulbs for daylight bulbs in certain parts of the house or office, as these give a brighter, more natural light, closer to daylight in colour.

Winter sun (not one for this year but generally)

It’s a great idea to take a break during winter and a trip to sunnier climes can boost your mood and give you time away from work and everyday stresses to relax. Just a word of warning, you might feel temporarily worse when you return, so plan how you’ll manage this before you leave.

Other ways to cope with SAD…

Keep up your normal routine

This means resisting the urge to veg on the sofa and continuing with your activities and hobbies (if this isn’t possible during winter, look for alternatives).

Get active

Regular exercise will get your blood and lymph system moving and your body producing endorphins, hormones that make us feel happier. It doesn’t have to be an expensive gym membership, a regular walk or local dance class will be just as good.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet

We tend to be drawn to sweet and starchy foods for comfort or a temporary energy boost. Balancing carbohydrates with healthy fats, protein and fibre from vegetables and fruit can help to restore energy levels.

Avoid or minimise stress

If you know that winter can be a difficult time for you, then plan ahead and reduce the stressful things you have to do at this time. Take advantage of feeling good in the summer to prepare ahead – maybe the thought of buying Christmas presents in July seems odd, but it can take the pressure off in December!

3 women socialising over coffeeBoost your support network (even if it’s virtually)

Knowing you’re not alone can make SAD easier to cope with.

Talk to friends and family about your condition so they understand what it is, what to expect and what they can do to help, even if it’s just listening or meeting up for an occasional coffee or walk. There are also support groups where you can talk openly and share your experiences with people who will understand. You can find these through your local library, your GP, MIND or online.

Try antidepressants or herbal remedies

A number of antidepressants can be prescribed by your GP for SAD. They don’t cure it in the long term but they can help you to cope better with the symptoms. St John’s Wort is a popular herbal remedy that some people find helpful for mild to moderate SAD symptoms. However it can interact with prescription medicines and interfere with their effects, so talk to your GP or pharmacist before taking it.

Talk to someone

A trained counsellor or therapist will listen without judgement and can help you to identify unhelpful patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour and develop healthy coping strategies over the winter months. A counsellor can also help you to identify whether anything in your past is affecting how you feel today and help you to deal with any difficult feelings you may have. Your GP may be able to refer you for talking therapies or to a specialist service, and talking therapies can also be accessed privately.

Find out more…

The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA)

Light products and information www.sad.co.uk