Many of us feel differently when the seasons change. Winter’s shorter days and increasing darkness may negatively affect our behaviour, vitality, sleep, and eating patterns. However, if this affects your day-to-day life, you may be suffering from a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
A 2021 study reported that one in 20 people in the UK struggles with SAD. Although seasonal affective disorder may occur at any time of year (the second primary type of SAD occurs in the summer), it is more frequent in winter. It is thus often referred to as the winter blues or winter depression.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder refers to recurrent bouts of major depression, mania, or hypomania that occur only at certain times of the year (SAD). Depression is a mental condition often accompanied by recurrent feelings of sadness that interfere with a person’s ability to function normally in day-to-day life.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is often seen in its winter depression form. It is characterised by cyclical periods of depression that typically begin in the autumn or winter and resolve by the coming spring or summer.
According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, SAD is common and associated with psychosocial impairment, making diagnosis and treatment more critical. Early diagnosis and treatment are also often effective and may significantly reduce the likelihood of future SAD episodes.
No conclusive evidence points to a particular cause for seasonal affective disorder. However, MayoClinic.org cites several potential contributors to the condition, including the following:
The circadian rhythm (the biological clock in you)
Winter-onset SAD may be triggered by the lower amount of sunshine experienced throughout the autumn and winter. The body’s natural circadian rhythm may be disrupted by a lack of sunshine, which may increase depressive feelings.
Low levels of serotonin during winter
There is some evidence that seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may be caused by a decrease in serotonin, a biochemical (neurotransmitter) in the brain that modulates moods. A decrease in serotonin levels, which may result in depression, may be brought on by less exposure to sunshine during winter.
A decrease in serotonin levels, which may result in depression, may be brought on by less exposure to sunshine during winter.
High levels of melatonin during winter
Your body may produce the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin at greater than usual levels in patients with seasonal affective disorder.
Low levels of vitamin D
Asthma, cancers, and severe pain are just some of the illnesses that have been related to insufficient vitamin D levels. Scientists from the University of Georgia have shown that low vitamin D levels are also linked to an increased risk of SAD.
Symptoms of SAD
Some individuals with SAD have milder versions of the typical depression symptoms, such as a desire to sleep longer, increased hunger, and increased body weight. According to Harvard Health, the most common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include the following:
- Having difficulty focusing
- Having a longer sleep than normal
- A hunger that’s harder to ignore, potentially accompanied by a desire for high-carbohydrate meals
- Desire to isolate oneself
- Heavy feelings in the limbs
Confirming a SAD diagnosis
Your GP could conduct a psychological examination to determine how you feel mentally. They could inquire about your:
- Way of life
If your depressive symptoms after a seasonal shift keep you from engaging in routine activities, you could have SAD. A medical expert will often start the diagnosis by ruling out all other causes of depression, including family history and other risk factors. Seasonal affective disorder is the most likely diagnosis if it repeatedly occurs after seasonal changes.
SAD can be difficult to spot. There are other additional forms of depression with comparable symptoms. Before you and your doctor establish that your illnesses follow a predictable pattern, it can take a while.
A diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may often be made if one or more of the following conditions is present:
- Depression and no-depression phases alternate.
- You experience seasonal depression yearly at the same time.
- Your depressive symptoms have occurred yearly around the same period for at least two years.
Management and treatment of SAD
Seasonal variations may reduce symptoms of SAD, although treatment usually has a quicker effect. NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, advises treating SAD like other types of depression. Light therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and medication, such as antidepressants, can be helpful.
When receiving light therapy, the patient is positioned in front of a specific box that emits intense light while obstructing any potentially hazardous UV rays. It requires at least 20 minutes every day of your time, ideally early in the morning in the winter. Most people who get light therapy say they feel better within a fortnight of starting it.
To guarantee that none of their advantages is lost, some patients who experience the therapeutic benefits of light therapy choose to continue their treatment throughout the whole season. Some people find it worthwhile to begin light therapy around the beginning of autumn to head off the recurrence of their symptoms later in the year.
The seasonal affective disorder has also been successfully treated with talk therapy, especially cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). Additionally, antidepressants, referred to as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are the most broadly applied class of medications to treat this disease.
There are also some organic, less expensive methods of treating SAD. Getting more sun may help some people with the seasonal affective disorder find relief from their symptoms. Spending time outside or sitting next to a window at work are two methods to increase your exposure to natural light. (UV rays from spending a lot of time outside in the sun may increase your risk of skin cancer). Talk to your healthcare practitioner about the benefits and risks.
Just a little self-care may transform your SAD into GLAD. The University of Kentucky advise:
- Get as much sunshine as possible, or invest in artificial lighting.
- Laugh regularly and practice gratitude to improve your happiness and well-being.
- Activity time; (A period of physical activity for at least twenty minutes, five times per week).
- Drink at least 64 ounces of clean water and ensure your diet is balanced.
Furthermore, you might attempt the following treatments:
- Make meditation and other ways of relaxing a regular part of your routine.
- If you can, spend some time outside in the sun (with sunscreen).
- Use creative outlets such as music or painting as a form of healing.
Is it time to see a doctor?
See your doctor if you’ve been feeling low for more than a few days and cannot muster the energy to engage in your favourite hobbies.
This is particularly true if you’ve seen changes in your sleep and eating habits or started using alcohol for relief. You do not have to suffer alone. If you have suicidal thoughts, seek urgent medical attention or visit an emergency department. You may also call The Samaritans.
Joanne Docherty is a mental health consultant and trainer and the founder of Starra Education. She also teaches Psychology at the University of Glasgow.