The onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Autumn is now in full swing and for many of us so is the onset of the dreaded SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder.

For those of you who are unaware, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a particular type of depression that is linked to those months of the year where natural daylight is significantly reduced. In the UK at least, this is most commonplace where the clocks revert back an hour from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time; October to March.

SAD shares many of the common symptoms of regular, vanilla depression:

  • Low mood
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of lethargy and wanting to sleep
  • Lack of interest in activities that you would normally enjoy
  • Food cravings and weight gain
  • Feelings of despair, hopelessness and worthlessness

Those of us who battle with our own mental health conditions are somewhat used to managing such symptoms throughout the year. Not that it’s easy mind you. But I can imagine that it must be particularly hard to deal with if you’re used to coasting along happily for most of the year and all of a sudden the clocks go back and your mood falls through the floor.

Seasonal Affective Disorder affects 2% of the population each year.

So what causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Well, according to the NHS the main theory behind SAD is that a lack of natural sunlight may cause the a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus to stop functioning correctly. In turn, this can affect the production of both melatonin, (a hormone that makes feel sleepy) and serotonin, (a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep.)

In the summer months of course, we are exposed to a lot more natural sunlight. So even if you work a typical 9-5 in an office say, you are still going to be able to enjoy the sunshine well into the evening. Whereas once we make the switch from BST to GMT in October, all of a sudden the sun disappears around 5pm.

This makes it likely that you will go to work before it gets light in the morning, spend all day in the artificial light of the office and then head home in the dark. It’s not surprising then that at it’s worst SAD affects 2% of the population. While a milder form of the condition – commonly known as the winter blues typically affects up to 20% of the population

If Seasonal Affective Disorder does affect you personally you’ll know that it can have a significant impact on your day to day life, as well as the people around you.

But there are some steps that you can take in order to help manage the condition.

The first and most important step is to seek advice from your GP. They may suggest you begin taking a particular type of antidepressant known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs. These will help to increase the amount of Serotonin within your brain which, in turn, will help to lift your overall mood back to where it should be.

Antidepressants do come with side effects of course. They will typically take up to 6 weeks to really get to work and they don’t suit everyone. But they are a proven and effective way of giving you the lift that you generally need during the darker months.

Don’t feel ashamed if you need to take them either. There is no shame in wanting to feel your better.

Other ways that you can help alleviate your SAD include getting plenty of regular exercise during the limited daylight hours. I know, I know. I hate the old cliché that exercise is a cure for depression too. But it isn’t healthy for mind or body to be cooped up all day inside. Try going for a short walk during your lunch break, even if it’s just twenty minutes around the block.

Another form of treatment for SAD is light therapy. For this you would need to invest in a special daylight lamp or lightbox. These can be picked up on places such as Amazon and work by simulating the natural sunlight that is in such short supply during the winter months. It’s thought that exposure to this type of light has the same effect on your Serotonin levels that actual natural sunlight has. Although there are mixed views as to whether such therapy is effective.

Of course one of the key ways in which you can help to manage your Seasonal Affective Disorder is to practise good self-care. Try to manage the amount of stress that you’re exposing yourself to. Eat a good, balanced diet. Spend plenty of time doing the things that you enjoy. Get outside for a walk whenever you feel like it. Don’t feel guilty if you just want to curl up under a blanket in front of the telly.

Above all else, be kind to yourself.


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