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SAD - more than the winter blues?

26th September 2023

I think most of us are affected by the seasons, temperature, daylight, weather and events held at particular times of year in one way or another.  Such factors have a direct effect on our moods, emotional state, mental health, physical capabilities, motivation, outlook, energy levels, sleep, eating patterns and general wellbeing.

It’s relatively normal to be affected by the seasons, but if you feel it’s more than just the winter blues and it’s interfering with your everyday life, especially if symptoms are consistent with the same time each year, it may be worth considering if you are experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

So, what is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that can be experienced during particular seasons or times of the year. Most will experience SAD during the autumn and winter months, but some people are affected during spring and summer too. SAD doesn't mean you 'just feel a bit low in winter'. It can be debilitating and affect us just as much as other types of depression and mental health issues.

It can be frustrating and upsetting if people don't understand SAD and how it makes you feel. Knowledge and awareness are key, if you feel you are experiencing SAD it is worth gaining a good understanding of the disorder and learning ways in which you can support yourself. It can also be helpful if you live with or know someone affected by SAD to have a general understanding, so you can offer the right support.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

If you have SAD, you might experience some of the following signs and symptoms. Each person’s experience is individual, so some may be relevant to you, or you may experience other feelings not detailed below:

  • Feeling depressed.
  • Feeling sad, listless, down, low, tearful, guilty, hopeless most days.
  • Low energy and feeling sluggish.
  • Having difficulty concentrating.
  • Not wanting to engage in activities or see people.
  • Feeling more anxious or agitated than usual.
  • Insomnia (sleep problems) - sleeping too much and finding it difficult to wake up (more apparent in winter) sleeping too little and waking up a lot or having disturbed sleep (more apparent in summer).
  • Changes in your appetite, such as overeating, experiencing carbohydrate cravings, weight gain or lacking appetite and not wanting to eat.
  • Suicidal feelings.
  • If you have other mental health problems, you might find that SAD makes your symptoms worse.

So, what are the possible causes of SAD?

Whilst the exact causes are not clear cut, research suggests that possible causes are similar to those of depression, but there are also common factors which can directly contribute. As with all mental health issues everyone’s experience is unique.

  • The effects of light - daylight, sunlight and natural light affect many aspects of our functioning.  Some people seem more affected by the reduction of light than others, resulting in feelings associated with depression and SAD.
  • Disrupted body clock (circadian rhythm) - your brain sets your body clock according to the hours of daylight. The decrease of sunlight during the winter months can disrupt your sleep cycle, some more than others, leading to disturbed sleep, lethargy, tiredness and depression.
  • Melatonin and Serotonin levels - when it's dark, your brain produces the hormone Melatonin, which helps prepare your body for sleep, so less daylight can increase the production of this brain chemical. The neurotransmitter and ‘feel good hormone’ Serotonin is also affected by how much sunlight we absorb, so reduction in light directly affects our moods and how we feel. SAD is more common in countries where there are greater changes in the weather and in daylight hours during different seasons.
  • Weather and temperatures - both have a direct impact upon our mood, emotions and physical capabilities.  Some people are more affected by bad weather and cold temperatures, others may experience difficulties with hot temperatures and humidity.  Both extremes can directly affect other mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

So, what may make me more at risk of SAD?

SAD seems to be diagnosed more in women than men and younger adults more so than the elderly, but the following may also be contributing factors:

  • Your geographical location - living further from the equator, so further in the northern or southern hemispheres, means less sunlight hours during the winter months and more during the summer months.  This can magnify light and temperature responses.
  • Mental health conditions - depression, bi-polar, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), ADHD, eating disorders, bereavement etc can affect your ability to cope with the symptoms associated with SAD.  I have already explored the impact of severe heat on mental health in a previous blog post - take a look at how such weather extremes can affect our wellbeing and interfere with medication etc.
  • Family history - if you have blood relatives that have depression, SAD, or other mental health issues, you may be more prone to developing depression and SAD.
  • Vitamin D deficiency - Vitamin D is produced by the body through exposure to sunlight.  During winter, when sunlight is in shorter supply, we can become Vitamin D deficient if we aren’t getting enough through a balanced diet.
  • Other life stressors - you may be experiencing other difficulties such as a recent loss, trauma, physical illness, divorce etc - it may be harder to cope with the effects of SAD if you are experiencing other life stressors and vice versa.

So, what can I do to help cope with SAD?

There are lots of things you can do to help yourself cope with your symptoms.  Some suggestions are more applicable to winter related SAD and others for summer, but lots are common factors which can be used for both:

SAD during autumn/winter:

  • Get as much natural light as possible - sit outside, walk in nature, sit by a window as much as you can to get exposed to sunlight and natural light.
  • Light exposure - there are many SAD lamps and light exposure devices on the market.  Light boxes and lamps produce a bright light, like sunlight - research shows that exposure to these for around 30 minutes in the morning can improve your symptoms. Sunrise alarm clocks which gradually light up your room as you wake can also be beneficial. It may be worth speaking with your GP before embarking on light therapy, especially if you have sight issues, are taking certain supplements or medications such as St John’s Wort or anti psychotics.
  • Be organised and plan ahead - if you know you struggle during the winter months, make meals to add to the freezer so you have food prepared in case you’re lacking in motivation, don’t give yourself too many commitments or things to do, make sure you plan a daily routine.
  • Eat a balanced diet - make sure you are getting enough Vitamin D.

SAD during spring/summer:

  • Stay hydrated - drink plenty of water.
  • Stay cool - keep indoors, by a fan, wear cool clothes.
  • Avoid alcohol - this can dehydrate and negatively affect your moods.
  • Be realistic with what you can do - plan for taking it easier during the hotter days.

In addition to the above:

  • Relaxation - finding ways to help you relax will reduce stress levels and enable you to feel more able to cope.  Such things may include meditation, mindfulness, listening to music, reading, relaxing hobbies etc.
  • Physical exercise - exercise is proven to help with mental health conditions.  Exercise produces ‘good feeling hormones’ which can help lift moods, improve your overall wellbeing and help you feel more in control. Walking, running, yoga, swimming are all great mood enhancers.
  • Talk to someone - sharing how you feel with friends and family can be an invaluable support for anyone.  Don’t feel ashamed to express how you feel with someone you trust. There are also many support and chat lines, which are confidential and non-judgmental, such as NHS 111, Samaritans, Childline, Saneline, Calm, Mind, Anxiety UK etc.
  • Therapy - talking things through with a trained professional can help.  Talking therapies in general can help you offload and look at things from different perspectives. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help you look at your thoughts, behaviours, consequences and explore different approaches to help you cope. Art and creative therapies and ecotherapy can also be beneficial.
  • Hobbies and interest - engaging in hobbies and things you enjoy can help you get through difficult times.
  • Journalling - writing down how you feel can help you acknowledge, process and let go of your thoughts, worries and feelings.  Do this several times a day or on an evening as a reflective practice. It may be helpful to note your moods and when they worsen/improve to see if there are any triggers or associations with times of day/year etc.
  • Keep a routine - try to wake at the same time each day and keep to a routine as this can help your body clock and overall wellbeing.
  • Selfcare - simple things like looking after yourself can help at any time.  Take time for a bath, engage in relaxation or a hobby, pamper yourself, eat and sleep well etc.
  • Supplements - Vitamin D is the obvious choice but multi vitamins and supplements to improve mental and general health may also be appropriate.
  • Good sleep routine - are you doing all you can to get a good night’s sleep? Many people suffer from Insomnia, and this can be worse at certain times of year.  Take a look at my blog on Insomnia for helpful tips and strategies.
  • Complimentary therapies - aromatherapy, reflexology, reiki, massage and meditation can all help reduce stress and enable you to relax.
  • Medication - see you GP, some people may benefit from medication such as antidepressants or SSRIs.

Supporting someone with SAD?

If you are trying to support a friend or relative who is experiencing SAD, it can be hard to know how to best support.  Firstly, I would encourage you to be informed, read up about the condition, symptoms and what you can do to help.  Encourage your friend or relative to engage in some of the strategies suggested to help support themselves or seek professional support.  Try to understand how they feel, don’t be critical or judgmental.  Let them know you are there, if only to listen rather than give advice. Look after yourself too, supporting someone can also take its toll on your wellbeing, so be sure to think of your own selfcare.

I hope you have found this information helpful, but please remember everyone is different and we all experience and cope with things differently.  So, let’s be kind to each other and try to understand.

‘’Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one remembers to only

turn on the light.’’


J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter


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