In 2020, 3% of people had experienced Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) at some point in their life. With COVID restrictions posing a barrier to many of us getting our winter sun, could we be more likely to suffer from SAD? And how do we combat this if it’s not so easy to just hop on a plane to our favourite sunny destination?
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the changing seasons. This means you get symptoms at the same time every year, usually around autumn and winter (1). Most people start to get symptoms for the first time in their 20s or 30s, but children can be affected too. Women are about four times more likely to have SAD than men.
Many people find that their mood or energy levels drop when it gets colder, or even warmer, and can notice a change in their sleeping and eating patterns. If these feelings interfere with everyday life, doctors say this could be a sign of depression. If you find these feelings coming back at the same time each year, it could be seasonal affective disorder, or seasonal depression. (2)
What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
A sunny disposition is more than just an expression. Research suggests that during months with little sun, people experience more mental health distress. This may be due to decreased levels of serotonin, the well-known happy hormone that helps to regulate your mood (3). Other findings suggest that people with SAD produce too much melatonin—a hormone that is central for maintaining the normal sleep-wake cycle. Overproduction of melatonin can increase sleepiness.
Both serotonin and melatonin help maintain the body’s daily rhythm that is tied to the seasonal night-day cycle (circadian rhythm). In people with SAD, the changes in serotonin and melatonin levels disrupt the normal daily rhythms. As a result, they can no longer adjust to the seasonal changes in day length, leading to sleep, mood, and behaviour changes. (4)
What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
• Lack of energy
• Finding it hard to concentrate
• Not wanting to see people
• Sleep problems, such as sleeping more or less than usual, difficulty waking up, or difficulty falling or staying asleep
• Feeling sad, low, tearful, guilty or hopeless
• Changes in your appetite, for example feeling more hungry or wanting more snacks
• Being more prone to physical health problems, such as colds, infections or other illnesses
• Losing interest in sex or physical contact
• Suicidal feelings
• Other symptoms of depression.
If you have any of these symptoms and think you have SAD, contact your GP.
How can you treat SAD?
Look at your lifestyle.
If your SAD symptoms are more mild, you may find there are small changes you can make that could help.
- Spend more time outdoors in the daylight hours. Those that work in an office may switch to taking a walk during a lunch break, even if it’s only for 15 minutes.
- Do regular exercise. Exercise releases endorphins that can leave you feeling happier, relaxed and less stressed or anxious. That can be anything from a longer walk, to lengths in the pool or your favourite class at the gym.
- Speak to someone. Explain what youre feeling and how SAD is affecting you. They may be able to give you help and support when you need it(5).
- Create a good sleep routine. Allow yourself time to wind down and avoid using your phone before bed.
Dr. Craig Sawchuk, a Psychologist for the Mayo Clinic, says one of the most effective treatments for seasonal affective disorder is exposure to artificial light or light therapy.
The light comes from a specially made device which gives off much brighter light than a normal light bulb. There are several light therapy devices available, including lightboxes and dawn-simulating alarm clocks. You may need to try a few to find out which one works for you. See if you can try out the device at home before you commit to buying one.
Doctors suggest using the device every autumn to stop symptoms appearing in the first place.
Your doctor may recommend a type of talking therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT can change how you think and feel, and what you do. It works well for depression, and you may find that it helps you to manage your SAD symptoms. It may even stop your SAD symptoms coming back each year.