Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – The Lowdown
It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s windy and even the sun is so annoyed by this fact that it hasn’t shown its face at all in months. Which is just rude really. The least it could do is give us a little bit of a boost, but no. It’s too busy sulking away in the sky, hiding behind the clouds and having a good cry because it’s just as miserable as we are.
Some people thrive in the winter months, coming alive with activity and throwing themselves into the hustle and bustle of the world, but for many of us, it’s a time to hibernate like bears, and not come out until the sun has finished having its little tantrum. Unfortunately, this can also mean our good moods tend to hide as well.
I often notice a change in my mood when it comes to the winter months. I don’t like being cold because it causes more pain, although I do love snow, which is a little bit unfortunate as the two tend to go together! But I just find winter so draining and exhausting and it really does add to my depression.
Many of us feel a difference in our mood during the winter months, but this usually improves after our bodies have adjusted to the changes in the weather. However, for a select number of us, this change starts having an effect on our daily lives to the point where medical or therapeutic intervention is needed. This is when it becomes Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD is a kind of depression that can be experienced by anyone, regardless of their mental health status and revolves around the seasons. Most people notice in the winter months, but it can actually occur in any season of the year. In the UK, it’s estimated that 1 in 20 people have been diagnosed with it, and that’s only the people with a formal diagnosis. The true number is probably much, much higher.
The problem in diagnosing it, is that the symptoms are very similar (almost identical really) to clinical depression, with the only real difference being that they don’t happen all the time. Once the season changes, the symptoms go away. They can also vary depending on the season causing the fluctuation..
It’s very easy to confuse these symptoms with other illnesses, so one of the things you can do, is keep a journal and note how you’re feeling day to day and season to season. That can help your GP work out if it is SAD or if it’s something else.
There is no singular cause of SAD, however, there are a few different theories and they all revolve around sunlight, serotonin and melatonin. The lack of sunlight that we experience in winter is thought to affect the production of these hormones, both of which are needed to help regulate your internal body clock.
Serotonin works as a neurotransmitter carrying messages between nerve cells in the brain, and has a massive effect on your sleep, mood and appetite. Low levels of it can have an adverse effect on all of these things and is one of the causes of depression. People with SAD have often been found to have lower levels of serotonin because of the reduced sunlight.
Melatonin is the hormone responsible for regulating your sleep. Now I already have insomnia, so I can instantly say that I either don’t have enough, or I have too much. Add in the winter months and that just causes more upset and confusion. In people with SAD, the lack of sunlight can cause the body to produce more melatonin than needed, making you more tired and lacking in energy. In summer, it has the opposite effect; more sunlight produces less melatonin which in turn, can cause insomnia.
All of these things can then have a knock-on effect on your internal body clock, causing confusion, fatigue and lead to the increased feelings of depression.
If all of this is striking a nerve and sounding a bit familiar, then the first thing would be to speak to a doctor. They can advise on the best course of action and prescribe short term medication if need be, in particular a group of anti-depressants calls SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). These work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain and, hopefully, make you feel better. Medication should only ever be taken under the guidance and influence of a medical professional though, as certain medications taken together can cause dangerous side effects. Anti-depressant use in particular should be closely monitored.
If medication is a path you don’t want to take, or you’d like to try more natural methods first, then look no further because I’ve done all the research for you so you don’t have to!
Get some sun! The sun is one of the biggest creators of vitamin D, which is absolutely necessary for our bodies. It may not always be easy for us in the Northern climes, but even 15-30 minutes a day can make a big difference.
Light Therapy. Many people find that getting a lamp or device that gives off strong white or blue light can simulate the sun without the need to go outside in the cold. Do have a chat with your doctor though to make sure it’s a suitable solution for you.
Vitamin D! As aforementioned, vitamin D is something that our bodies create when we get enough sunshine. Lack of sunshine, means less vitamin D. If you’re unable to get enough natural sunlight, supplements can be an effective way to help boost those levels, but again, speak to your doctor to make sure a supplement is suitable for you and your needs.
Plan ahead. If you know that the change of season is going to be a problem, try and plan ahead for those time. Have contingency plans in place for days when you know you’re going to be indoors a lot or talk to your GP in advance to discuss your options. You could also do some meal planning and fill your freezer up with some tasty, well-balanced meals for those times when you know you won’t have the energy to cook. Kind of like that hibernating bear….
Talk to someone. Anyone. Literally anyone. It doesn’t really matter who they are as long as you trust them. Let them know when you’re feeling a bit low and they can help put a positive plan into action. Or just come round and cuddle up on the sofa with a comfy blanket, a bottle of wine and some chocolate (lots of serotonin in that J!).
Having SAD really doesn’t have to mean that every winter (or summer) will be miserable. With the right treatment plan and support system in place, many people find that their symptoms improve (or are at least manageable) and they’re able to enjoy the season, not just survive it. Life shouldn’t be about survival, it should be about living, whatever that looks like. How you choose to do that is entirely up to you.