Seasonal Affective Disorder: What is it & tips to prevent

As the darker nights draw in and the days feel shorter, it can have a significant impact on our mood. Some people find this time of year challenging and may develop seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

While many people refer to SAD as the “winter blues,” there’s more to it than that. Symptoms may start off mild and get progressively worse as you move further into the season. Once warmer weather begins, it can be easier to snap out of it.

The exact cause of SAD is not known. However, some scientists agree it occurs due to a chemical change in the brain that happens with less sunlight exposure.

Reduced light exposure causes a reduction in the amount of serotonin that our body produces. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which regulates mood and is implicated in depression.

Also the body naturally produces more melatonin at night and when the days are shorter. Melatonin is responsible for causing feelings of fatigue, so with more darkness, you are likely to feel more fatigued and lethargic throughout the day.

Circadian rhythms are mental, physical, and behavioural changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. Our circadian rhythms are tuned to make sure that we are awake in the day and asleep at night, they use light to do this. Therefore, the amount of light we get can affect our mood. Lack of sunlight in the darker seasons can contribute to this reason.

As with depression, the severity of SAD symptoms can vary from person to person. Common symptoms of SAD include:

  • Depressed mood, low self-esteem
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Feeling angry, irritable, stressed, or anxious
  • Changes in sleeping pattern
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair

Below are some ways to help prevent or ease symptoms.

1. Exercise

Exercise produces feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins which can help fight depression.

While exercise in a gym can be extremely helpful, getting outside for a quick run or walk around the block can be even more beneficial. If it is not possible to get out in the day or the winter weather then there are plenty of home workout resources available, now more than ever.

2. Get Outside

Although cold, winter sunlight can be bright and being outdoors you will naturally soak up some light. Even on a cloudy day you’ll get more light than you would indoors. Sometime fresh air, being in nature or a change of scenery can make you feel better.

3. Diet

Depression can often make you reach for unhealthy methods of coping, like overeating or choosing junk food over healthy foods. While these choices may make you feel good temporarily, they aren’t a long-term way of managing symptoms of SAD.

When coping with seasonal affective disorder, start by eating a healthy diet. A healthy diet will boost your mood, give you more energy and stop you putting on weight over winter. Balance your craving for carbohydrates, such as pasta and potatoes, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.

4. Vitamins

In the winter more people are at risk of vitamin D deficiency because of the lack of sunlight.

In the UK, winter sunlight doesn’t contain enough UVB radiation for our skin to be able to make Vitamin D. During these months, we rely on getting our vitamin D from food sources and supplements. A vitamin D deficiency can make you feel tired, achy, and generally unwell

Also taking vitamin B supplements can be a good idea at this time of year to support energy levels in general. Studies show that B vitamins can enhance mood.

5. Embrace Light

As previously mentioned being outdoors is beneficial to get natural light. If indoors try to keep curtains/blinds open.

Light therapy has proven to be extremely effective and is accomplished through the use of a lightbox, which mimics the sun’s rays. Light from the box counteracts the increased darkness outside and the lack of sunshine inside, so it basically tells your brain to wake up.

They help your body clock keep going instead of wanting to sleep just because it’s dull.

6. Keep Warm

Lots of people with SAD also hate cold weather and say they cannot get warm in winter, no matter how many layers they put on. Being cold makes you more depressed. People who dislike the cold may avoid going outside and therefore be less exposed to sunlight. Keep warm with hot drinks and hot food. Wear warm clothes and shoes, and aim to keep your home between 18C and 21C.

7. Talk to someone

It’s been shown that socialising is good for your mental health and helps ward off the winter blues. Make an effort to keep in touch with and try to accept any invitations you get to social events.

Speak out to someone if you are struggling. Sharing your experience with others can be therapeutic, ease anxiety and can make your symptoms more bearable.

Talking treatments such as counselling, psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also help you cope with symptoms.

If your symptoms are so bad that you can’t live a normal life, see your GP for medical help.

The important thing to remember if you are suffering from SAD is that you are not alone.