Seasonal Affective Disorder: what is it and what can be done to help?

Disclaimer: the writer of this article is not a medical professional, and all information in this article should not be used as a substitute for advice from a doctor or health professional.

For many people, this time of year brings about thoughts of Christmas and snowy, cold winter nights. But for some, this season can bring feelings of sadness and depression. This dip in mental wellbeing is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and affects as many as 1 in 15 people in the UK. It is a form of depression that varies with the seasons, typically being at its worst from December to February.

SAD can affect anyone, and its causes are various and not fully understood. The main cause is thought to be a lack of sunlight making the hypothalamus in the brain stop operating at its best as a change in the levels of hormones produced. Lower light levels are also connected with the increase in melatonin production which results in feeling sleepy more often.

Similarly, a lack of sunlight can cause lower serotonin levels to be produced, which affects your mood, appetite, and sleep. Finally, the change in sunlight levels can often affect the body’s circadian rhythm or internal clock. Lower light levels disrupt the normal functioning of the use of sunlight to time important bodily functions, leading to symptoms of SAD.

The main symptoms of SAD include a persistent low mood and a loss of pleasure and interest in activities previously enjoyed. There are also feelings of irritability, guilt, and worthlessness and often feeling lethargic and sleepy during the day, leading to sleeping for longer periods of time.

Also, some find an increase in craving for carbohydrates, causing weight gain. This can increase feelings of depression and guilt, as unintentional weight gain can be very taxing on your mental health. SAD comes with a regular pattern, either at a similar time each year, or periods of depression being followed by periods without.

There are various treatments available for SAD, and working closely with your GP will mean the best treatment option is chosen. The main treatments are lifestyle changes, light therapy, talking therapies, and medication.

The lifestyle changes that can help are trying to get as much natural sunlight as possible, managing and reducing stress, and having a regular exercise programme. Having a healthy, balanced diet, and making your home and work environments as light as possible can reduce symptoms. Light therapy is also available – this is where a lightbox is used to mimic exposure to sunlight and is a popular option for many sufferers of SAD.

These are options you can do at home to help soothe the symptoms of SAD. Therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling, and use of medication, can also be used to alleviate symptoms.

SAD is a serious mental illness and one that can be debilitating for some people. However, it is not something to be ashamed of or scared to speak out about. The best way to help relieve the symptoms is to try lifestyle changes and get as much natural light as possible. This should be done with the advice of a medical professional. Finally, speaking to your friends and family about your symptoms can help them to understand your mood changes and the impact winter has and can help them support you.

Image: Gerald Gabernig via Flickr

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