Six self-help tips for seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Fatmata Kamara
Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK
20 October 2020
Next review due October 2023

As we head into the winter months during a pandemic, it’s understandable if you’re worried about how this combination might affect your mental health and wellbeing. Some people get a particular type of depression in the winter, called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Not everyone gets SAD, but here I’ll explain what it is and offer some tips to help you cope over the coming months.

What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that usually happens at the same time of year. It’s thought that changes during autumn and winter, such as the fewer hours of daylight, can negatively impact your mood. The darker days can disrupt your body’s internal ‘clock’ and affect the parts of your brain that make mood-regulating hormones, such as serotonin and melatonin. Seasonal affective disorder is sometimes called seasonal depression, winter blues, or winter depression.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

The main symptoms of SAD include:

  • having trouble waking, and sleeping more than usual
  • feeling tired and lethargic
  • feeling more hungry than usual and craving stodgy and sugary carbohydrates
  • gaining weight
  • finding it hard to stay connected with family and friends
  • feeling anxious, irritable and experiencing a low mood
  • having difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • losing interest in sex
  • feeling heavy, sluggish and moving slowly
  • feeling helpless or having suicidal thoughts

The symptoms of SAD often get better during the spring and summer months.

How do you treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

It’s not completely clear what happens when you have SAD – more research is needed so that doctors can direct people to the best possible treatments. Some people find that light therapy helps to ease their symptoms. This involves using an artificial lightbox to mimic the effects of sunlight during darker winter months. Other treatment options for seasonal affective disorder are the same as those used for other forms of depression, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and antidepressants.

Six self-help tips for SAD

There are some things you can try yourself to help manage your symptoms. Even if you don’t have SAD, these tips can help you look after yourself over the next few months. Here are six simple ideas to help you get started.

1. Get outside during daylight

If the decrease in daylight hours is affecting your mood, try to make the most of them and get outside when you can. Even a cloudy day will provide your body with the light it’s craving. So whether it’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning, or something you fit into your lunch break, wrap up warm and head out into the great outdoors.

2. Brighten up your environment

If you work indoors, make a conscious effort to let in as much sunlight to your working environment as possible. Open any curtains or blinds and sit by a window if you can.

As well as making your environment bright, you could also try bringing the outside world in with some indoor plants to feel a bit closer to nature.

3. Eat well

It’s important to eat a healthy, balanced diet to make sure your brain gets everything it needs to function properly. Try to eat little and often, and drink enough water throughout the day to help keep your brain energised and hydrated. Avoid drinking alcohol too, as this can make you feel worse.

4. Exercise (outdoors – if you can!)

Doing regular physical activity can help with low mood as well as improve your physical health. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends exercise for depression because it can help with mental wellbeing and getting enough sleep. So, getting outside and moving if you’re feeling low might just help to take your mind off things and lift your mood. It doesn’t have to be too intensive, go for a walk or gentle jog or cycle if you feel up to it.

5. Keep in contact

If you have SAD, you might find it difficult to keep up contact with your friends and family members. Arranging regular catch-ups in advance might help you to overcome this. You don’t have to do anything too complicated. Try a short video coffee date or a socially distanced walk at the weekend. Let your loved ones know how you’re feeling, so they can support you when you need it.

6. Have a self-soothe plan for tough days

If you recognise patterns of feeling low, it can help to plan for those difficult days. This might include some self-soothing measures – things that you know help comfort you. It might be wearing soft and comfortable clothes, using a notebook to write down your thoughts, or having a list of favourite films to watch. You might also think about rearranging meetings or events for another time, or planning in some relaxing activities. Think about what might work well for you.

Where to get help

If you think you might have SAD, contact your GP. Getting professional help when you need it is really important. Your GP will be able to look at your own personal situation and suggest treatments options that are right for you. It may help to keep a diary of your symptoms to see if you can spot a seasonal pattern of SAD.

If your mood is extremely low or you’re having suicidal thoughts, call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123 (UK and ROI) to talk to someone immediately.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Fatmata Kamara
Fatmata Kamara
Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK

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    • Seasonal affective disorder. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed August 2020
    • Depression. Management. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised September 2020
    • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Mind., published February 2019
    • Food fact sheet: depression and diet. British Dietetic Association., published April 2016

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