As a famous tv programme recently said….winter is coming – and with it comes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). So here are our top tips for how to stay on top and not let winter get you SAD.
What is it?
Most people haven’t heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but about 3% of the population will suffer with SAD this winter, with it tending to affect women more commonly than men. It happens as the winter draws in, the days get shorter, we get less sunlight and we become less active – almost like we’re starting to hibernate. The main theory is that it’s a type of seasonal depression affecting a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which helps regulate the:
- Production of melatonin – melatonin is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. In people with SAD, the body may produce it in higher than normal levels.
- Production of serotonin – serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep. A lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression.
- Body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) – your body uses sunlight to time various important functions, such as when you wake up, so lower light levels during the winter may disrupt your body clock and lead to symptoms of SAD
It’s also possible that some people are more vulnerable to SAD as a result of their genes, as some cases appear to run in families.
How do I know if I have SAD?
Symptoms of SAD tend to vary from person to person, but generally include some of the following:
- Lack of energy during the day
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep disturbances (sleeping noticeably more or less than usual, difficulty waking up, or difficulty falling or staying asleep)
- Persistent low mood or feeling sad, low, tearful, guilty or hopeless
- Changes in your appetite, (feeling hungrier or wanting more snacks)
- Loss of sexual or physical desire
- Increased susceptibility to colds, infections or other illnesses
- Loss of interest in normal everyday activities
What can I do about it?
There are a number of things that you can do to help change how SAD affects you:
Because SAD is a type of depression, therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling are an important thing to consider. There may be an emotional component happening (worries about Christmas, work stress etc) which may be contributing to the issue and need resolving alongside other considerations. Alongside this, being open and communicating with close friends and family can also help. Winter can also be a time of isolation for lots of people, so having people around that can help and support you can make a significant improvement in your outlook.
Simple changes such as getting as much natural sunlight as possible by spending more time outdoors can help significantly. In a recent article, I wrote about how we spend an average of 90% of our day indoors, getting outside more – especially when we have less sun available will be a key strategy. This could also include exercising regularly which will help to boost serotonin levels as well as help manage your stress levels better.
It’s possible to invest in a SAD/sun lamp for about £35 which will help simulate exposure to sunlight by reducing your melatonin (sleepy hormone) and increasing your serotonin (happy hormone) levels. These generally come without harmful UV rays so aren’t damaging to skin or eyes. It’s best to use them in the morning for around 30 minutes to an hour each morning, although they can be used just after lunch for an extra boost.
Dawn-stimulating alarm clocks, which gradually light up your bedroom as you wake up, may also be useful if you find it hard to wake up on winter mornings. We have one of these at home and by the time you wake up, you don’t feel “shocked awake” like you do with normal alarms and therefore feel more energetic and ready for the day.
The bottom line is;
- If you’re experiencing any problems with your mental health ― at any point during the year ― it’s important to acknowledge it and speak up. Talk to a counsellor, friends, family or whomever you are close to, but take action.
- Don’t ignore the warning signs, including; a difficulty to complete normal tasks, withdrawal from social activities, changes in mood or behavior and disruptions in eating or sleep patterns.
- Get outside daily and try to exercise as much as possible.
- Supplement your diet and be careful of what you eat
- Use a light lamp