Seasonal Affective Disorder: what is it and treatments

woman looking sad

by Chaneen Saliee |

I have found Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) a struggle for most of my life. When I began to take a deeper look at my mental health I noticed this trend where I would always feel ‘bad’ around my birthday (2 November) and Christmas. When I learned what SAD was, I felt as if it all made sense and there were reasons outside of my control and knowledge that caused it. This helped me so much because I now had something to research and I was able to learn about things I could do to help myself during these darker days.

If you experience your mood changes a lot during the seasons, you may also be suffering from SAD. Here's everything you need to know about it, including the symptoms, treatments, as well as my own personal strategies for managing it.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern.

It’s sometimes known as "winter depression" because the symptoms are usually more apparent and more severe during the winter, usually due to the lack of sunlight that comes with the season’s shorter days.

Sunlight plays a vital role in helping to regulate our hormones and without it our hormones are no longer in balance. For example, less sunlight means that people with SAD are more likely to produce more melatonin (the sleepy hormone) and inadequate amounts of serotonin (one of the happy hormones). Serotonin generally helps us to feel better and more in balance. Without it, people with SAD are prone to feelings of depression.

In addition to this, the lack of sunlight leads to our circadian rhythm (our bodies internal clock) being disrupted. Our bodies use sunlight to time some really important functions such as when we wake up and sleep. The circadian rhythm is an important 24-hour process that happens within the body which takes us from high alertness right through to deep sleep and back again. If this cycle is out of sorts we may find ourselves feeling frustrated and irritable.

However, it’s important to note that SAD doesn’t only affect people during the autumn winter months. Some SAD sufferers experience these symptoms in the summer and they begin to feel better during the colder months.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

• A persistent low mood

• A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities

• Irritability

• Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness

• Feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day

• Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning

• Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

What are the treatments for seasonal affective disorder?

The NHS recommends a number of possible treatments for SAD, including:

Lifestyle measures – including getting as much natural sunlight as possible, exercising regularly and managing your stress levels

Light therapy – where a special lamp called a light box is used to simulate exposure to sunlight

• Talking therapies – such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling

Antidepressant medicine – such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

My top tips for managing Seasonal Affective Disorder

1. Move

someone walking
Runner feet running on road closeup on shoe.

Run. Swim. Dance. Crawl. Cycle. Role play. Moving your body can help protect your mental health as exercising releases feel good hormones called endorphins, which improve your mood and can also help you de-stress.”

2. Make your home a haven

Whether you’re decluttering or decorating, spending your time and energy on making your space feel nice, is always a good use of your effort. I’ve been both decluttering and decorating and it really does mean that my days go by in a more focused and positive way.

3. Put things on hold

During this season in your life (every year) you should be focused on spending as much energy as it take in helping yourself to feel better. If you’ve made big plans or little plans, don’t hesitate to choose yourself first. Perhaps it’s taking a big weekend trip with the girls or starting a new project - whatever it is, it can wait until you’re feeling better.

On the contrary - making plans and having something to look forward to can help you keep focused on something other than how bad you feel. So go and see those friends and family members you haven’t seen in too long.

4. Get outside daily during peak sunlight hours

It is really important to get as much sunlight as possible during this time. It feels like all you want to do it coup you indoors and be alone, but if getting some sunlight means that you are less likely to feel like that, I’d say the effort is worth it. So get out, both the fresh air and the sunlight will work wonders in helping to improve your mood.

5. Talk it out

Find a community local or online and share how you are feeling. As you listen to others too you’ll be reminded that you are not alone. Talking therapy with professionals will also help so much. You may want to find yourself a flexible therapist to check in with over the next few months, just so you know you have support.

6. You can also keep a video / audio journal where you talk to yourself

I started doing that this year and it really helped. It didn’t feel too strange to me because I create video content for a living - but if it does feel strange to you, try to push past it, know that no one ever has to see this. Talk for as long as you need, it may only be a minute or an hour and do it as often as you need.

The key to releasing the depression is by chasing joy. Chasing the things that you can do that feel a bit better, and then a bit better, and then a bit better and you keep going until you’re free. Keep going no matter how many times you have to ‘start again’.

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