Tips to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Organisational psychologist - resilience lead
28 November 2017

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.

Picture of lady holding umbrella

What is seasonal affective disorder?

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, affect your body’s internal rhythms, and the parts of your brain that make mood-regulating hormones. Seasonal affective disorder is sometimes called the winter blues or winter depression

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

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
  • having trouble staying connected to family and friends
  • anxious and experiencing a low mood
  • having difficulty concentrating
  • losing interest in sex

How do you treat seasonal affective disorder?

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 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 five simple ideas to help you get started.

1. Get outside

If the decrease in daylight hours is having an effect on 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. Seek out sunlight

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.

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 of things and lift your mood. But it’s not always easy to find the motivation to exercise when it’s cold outside, take a look at our video for tips on how to keep exercising in the cold.

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.

Do light therapy lamps for 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. If you’d like to try light therapy, you can buy a light therapy box yourself. It’s recommended that you buy a lightbox which is a minimum of 10,000 lux and use it for 30 minutes every morning.

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

Can you get 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.

If you’d like to know more, take a look at our extensive information on seasonal affective disorder (SAD). And 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.

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.

Stuart Haydock
Organisational psychologist - resilience lead

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