How To Recognise and Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder This Winter

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At this time of year so much emphasis is placed on feeling festive, buying gifts, celebrating and showing gratitude when actually, not everyone is feeling quite so positive. 

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the weather affects your mood. Who could blame you for feeling a little blue when the winter brings an onslaught of rain, wind and days when the sun barely rises at all? The thing is, feeling the need to hibernate until weather conditions improve is very different to experiencing actual symptoms of depression as happens with those affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

Unfortunately, Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as S.A.D, is a mental health issue often overlooked and underestimated, perhaps due to our lack of understanding of it. In a bid to raise awareness and fully understand S.A.D, I reached out to Mind, a mental health charity that provides advice and support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem. 

Philippa Bradnock, Information Manager at Mind explained that S.A.D is a specific form of depression experienced at a particular time of year or during a particular season. Many people are affected by changes in seasons – for example feeling more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer, or eating more or sleeping longer in winter. However, for those with SAD, the change in seasons has a much greater effect on mood and energy levels, leading to symptoms of depression that have a significant impact on day-to-day life. Many people who have SAD will be affected when the hours of daylight are shorter i.e. December to February. However, some people get SAD in summer.

Who does SAD affect?

1 in 6 people will experience depression during their life. A small percentage of people who experience SAD have very severe symptoms and find it hard to carry out day-to-day tasks in winter without continuous treatment.

SAD, like any mental illness, can affect anyone and it shares some of the same potential causes as other types of depression: difficult life events, trauma and physical illness can also cause depression and SAD. There are some causes and triggers which are thought to be linked to developing SAD specifically, although it’s not known exactly why people develop SAD. Potential causes include how light and lack of light affects some people’s mood and bodily functions, a disrupted body clock as a result of changing daylight hours, and higher melatonin levels. People who have lived near the equator for part of their lives and then moved to the UK also seem to be particularly vulnerable to developing SAD. However, people can also develop SAD without there being a particular, identifiable cause.

“1 in 6 people will experience depression during their life.”

How can we identify S.A.D?

Symptoms of SAD can vary from person to person. Many people experience a lack of energy for everyday tasks, sleep problems such as sleeping for longer than usual or not being able to get to sleep and feeling low, hopeless, despairing or like you have let others or yourself down. People can also experience anxiety, panic attacks and mood changes.

How can we help ease the symptoms of S.A.D?

Different people find that different approaches help them to manage their SAD but there are things that can help.

Get active

Physical activity and going outdoors, especially in green spaces and during a time of day when there is lots of natural light, for example around midday or on sunny days, can be effective in reducing symptoms. Research shows that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression.

“Research shows that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression.”

Think about your diet

Eating a healthy and balanced diet can be as good for your mental health as it is for your physical health. Try to balance any cravings for carbohydrate, like pasta and bread, with fresh fruit and vegetables. Some people also find it helpful to take extra vitamin B12 or Vitamin D.

Connect with people

Cold weather can make us less likely to socialise with others, especially if we live alone and want to stay cosy indoors. If you are experiencing a mental health problem like depression, withdrawing from friends or family can be both a symptom and a cause of poor mental health you might feel like you don’t feel up to meeting up with people. Having contact with people can have a big impact on improving our mood, so try to make plans to see people. If you can’t see people in person you could try using online support groups like our Elefriends forum.

“If you can’t see people in person you could try using online support groups like our Elefriends forum.”

Avoid stress

If you find a particular time of year difficult, try to plan ahead to reduce your number of stressful or difficult activities around this time. If you are changing jobs or moving home think about doing that during a time when you feel best able to cope. You may also feel that discussing your symptoms with your employer and asking for more support could help in minimising pressure during difficult months.

Speak to your GP

Talk to your GP if you’ve noticed changes to your feelings, thoughts and behaviour that last longer than two weeks or keep returning. Perhaps you’re feeling tearful, irritable, or have lost interest in things you’ve previously enjoyed. Keep an eye out for changes to things like sleeping and eating. Your GP should be able to tell you what help and support is available. If appropriate, they may suggest a range of treatments, including psychological therapy – such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy – and medication. They might suggest antidepressants if you have severe SAD. Drugs can be beneficial for many people, but they don’t work for everyone, and do come with potential side effects. Your GP should discuss all the available options with you and if you are prescribed medication, it’s important to regularly monitor how they’re working for you. Talking to your GP about mental health can be daunting, so Mind has produced a guide to help, available at mind.org.uk/findthewords.

Niamh Crawford-Walker

Niamh is a full time fashion and features writer at The Style Edit. Her work has previously appeared in IMAGE magazine, image.ie and Emirates Woman.

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