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 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.
How do you know if you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
The main symptoms of SAD include:
- having trouble waking up, 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 can seasonal affective disorder (SAD) be treated?
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 the darker winter months. You can buy a SAD light box or SAD lamp to use, however you should speak to your doctor first for advice. 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 to help you cope with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
There are some things you can try yourself to help with SAD symptoms. Even if you don’t have SAD, these tips can help you look after yourself during the winter 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, try to let as much sunlight into 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 help you 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. Exercise can also help to improve your 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, gentle jog or cycle if you feel up to it.
5. Keep a diary
It can sometimes help to keep a diary (either on paper or using an app on your phone). By making notes of your SAD symptoms, you can pick up on any patterns. This could help you to understand what makes you feel better, and what makes you feel worse.
6. Plan ahead
If you recognise patterns of feeling low, it can help to plan ahead for those difficult days. This might involve stocking up on things you need, and freezing meals in case you don’t have energy to cook. You might also think about rearranging meetings or events for another time or planning some relaxing activities. Think about what might work well for you.
Where to get help for seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
If you think you might have SAD, contact a 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.