Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that affects people in a seasonal pattern. SAD is sometimes known as “winter depression” because the symptoms are usually more apparent and more severe during winter, although a few people with SAD may have symptoms during the summer and feel better during the winter.
Symptoms of SAD
Symptoms of SAD can include:
- a persistent low mood
- a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
- Social problems, irritability, not wanting to see people
- 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
- Anxiety, inability to cope
For some people, these symptoms can be severe and have a significant impact on their day-to-day activities. You can read more about the symptoms of SAD.
When to see your GP
You should consider seeing your GP if you think you might have SAD and you’re struggling to cope. Your GP can carry out an assessment to check your mental health. They may ask you about your mood, lifestyle, eating habits and sleeping patterns, plus any seasonal changes in your thoughts and behaviour.
What causes SAD?
The exact cause of SAD isn’t fully understood, but it’s often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of autumn and winter. Our bodies are tuned in to the daylight hours in order to maintain our circadian rhythms. These rhythms regulate many important bodily functions and without the correct daylight signals at the correct time this can have significant affects on your wellbeing. Circadian Rhythms help to regulate and control; food digestion, appetite for food, energy levels, sleep duration and quality, and also our mood. Circadian Rhythms are effectively your body’s internal clock but in modern society we spend a lot of time indoors and our bodies are therefore missing out on these signals.
The main theory is that a lack of sunlight might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly, which may affect the:
- Production of melatonin– melatonin is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. It is thought the body may produce melatonin in higher than normal levels in people with SAD.
- Production of serotonin– serotonin is a hormone that affects mood, appetite and sleep; a lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression
- Body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) – your body uses sunlight to time various important functions, such as when you wake up, so lower light levels during the winter may disrupt your body clock and lead to symptoms of SAD
It’s also possible that some people are more vulnerable to SAD as a result of their genes, as some cases appear to run in families.
Treatment for SAD
There are different treatments available that your GP will be able to discuss with you.
Some options include Light Therapy, Counselling and psychodynamic psychotherapy, CBT and medication.
Things you can try yourself
There are a number of simple things you can try that may help improve your symptoms, including:
- try to get as much natural sunlight as possible – even a brief lunchtime walk can be beneficial
- make your work and home environments as light and airy as possible
- sit near windows when you’re indoors
- take plenty of regular exercise, particularly outdoors and in daylight – read more about exercise for depression
- eat a healthy, balanced diet
- take steps to manage stress
It can also be helpful to talk to your family and friends about SAD, so they understand how your mood changes during the winter. This can help them to support you more effectively.
If you are a manager and would like to discuss ways of maintaining employee wellbeing all year round then get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 01422 897152 and we would be happy to discuss.