Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a cyclical depression that affects around 1 in 20 people and happens during the winter months. You have a 24-hour body clock called a circadian rhythm, and this is set by receiving sunlight through the eyes, which then tells the brain to produce neurochemicals and hormones. As the levels of sunlight decrease in the winter months, this can affect the amount of chemicals such as serotonin in the brain, which can cause SAD. Therefore, when the sunlight levels increase again in the spring, SAD can get better quite quickly.
So, what are the symptoms of SAD? Firstly, it affects your mood, so SAD can make you feel depressed, low, irritable, and anxious. It can also cause social isolation and withdrawal. Furthermore, SAD can cause people to sleep more and not feel refreshed when waking up, leading to fatigue (whereas typical depression tends to cause insomnia – sleeping less). It can also cause increased appetite, leading to weight gain (whereas other types of depression tend to cause decreased appetite). Finally, SAD can affect your ability to function, work and have relationships. But don’t worry, if you think you may be experiencing SAD there are some things you can try to ease the symptoms.
Here’s some lifestyle tweaks that you may find helpful. Firstly, you can exercise – time to go to the STV! Exercise releases hormones called endorphins which reduce pain and increase your sense of well-being. Exercise also increases energy levels which helps with the fatigue that SAD can cause by increasing metabolism. Plus,exercise is generally beneficial to self-esteem, improving sleep and reducing anxiety. You can also go outside into natural daylight in the middle of the day (even when it is raining – just take an umbrella!). You can also talk to friends and family, or anyone else you feel comfortable around, and tell them that you are struggling so they can provide support and make you feel less alone. Making plans for spring could also be helpful to remind yourself that spring is on the way and with that comes the lightening of your mood. Additionally, you could also purchase a SAD lamp to use as light therapy. This works as you sit a couple of feet away from the SAD lamp while you go about your day (don’t look directly at it) and this could ease the symptoms of SAD – but it is important to note that evidence in this area is mixed.
So, when should you seek help for SAD? This will differ for different people but you should seek help as soon as you feel it is impacting your life. Never hesitate to seek help whether that’s chatting to a healthcare professional, friends and family, or services such as Nightline at the university. Wishing you all good health in these winter months!