Tips to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK
04 December 2019

As the winter months arrive, your thoughts might turn to cosy nights in, Christmas markets, delicious food and twinkling lights. But while there are plenty of wonderful traditions at this time of year, the cold weather, shorter days and dark nights can sometimes leave you feeling low. While it’s normal to dream of warmer climates and start planning your next holiday, sometimes a touch of the winter blues can develop into something more. Here I’ll explain what seasonal affective disorder is, and share a few things you can try to help you cope.

What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

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

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

If you have SAD you might find you’re:

  • 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
  • having trouble staying connected to family and friends
  • 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 experiencing suicidal thoughts

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

How do you treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

What exactly happens when you have SAD isn’t fully understood; more research is needed so that doctors can direct people to the best possible treatments. Some people find that using light therapy helps to ease their symptoms. While 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.

But there are some things you can try yourself to help manage your symptoms. 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.

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!)

Taking part in regular exercise comes with a whole host of health benefits. When you get active, your body releases mood-boosting hormones known as endorphins that can help reduce the symptoms of depression. So getting outside and moving if you’re feeling low might just help to take your mind off things and lift your mood.

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. Just try going for dinner one evening or a walk at the weekend. Let your loved ones know how you’re feeling, so they can support you when you need it.

6. Take a trip somewhere sunny

When the days are dark and cold, consider booking a trip to warmer, sunnier climates to help brighten your mood.

Do light therapy lamps for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) work?

Some people find that light therapy as a treatment for SAD helps to ease their symptoms. Light therapy uses artificial lightboxes to mimic the effects of sunlight during darker winter months.

More research is needed before doctors know for sure if light therapy works, but if you’d like to try it, you can buy a light therapy box yourself. Make sure you buy one from a reputable source and follow the instructions provided. How long you use your lightbox for each day will depend on how strong it is.

It’s generally recommended that you trial using a light box of 10,000 lux, for 30 minutes every day for at least 2–3 weeks. You don’t have to look directly at the light, and it may help to use your lightbox early in the morning.

Lightboxes are generally considered safe to use as they don’t usually give off UV rays (the type that causes damage to your skin and eyes). But they may not be suitable if you have a condition which affects your eyes, or you take medication that makes your eyes sensitive to lights. Speak to your doctor for more advice.

If you find it difficult to wake up in the mornings, you might also find that a dawn-simulating alarm clock, which mimics sunrise, could help you to wake up slowly.

Can you get seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the summer?

Yes. Some people experience symptoms of SAD during the spring and summer months, which then disappear by the time winter comes around, although it’s much less common. For example, if you work in a building without any windows, you may get symptoms of SAD throughout the year.

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 experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123 (UK and ROI) to talk to someone immediately.

Mindfulness is a great way to nurture your mental health. Our health insurance allows you to skip GP referral in some cases, and speak straight to a consultant.

Fatmata Kamara
Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK

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Health information

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