What is seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression caused by the change in seasons. Whilst many of us may feel more cheery and energised during summer (rather than in the dark wintry months), for those who suffer from SAD, the change in seasons can have a much greater effect on their energy levels and mood.
The exact cause of SAD isn’t fully understood, but it’s commonly thought to be linked to the reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of the year. Reduction in sunlight can affect chemicals and hormones in the areas of your brain which control mood, appetite and sleep.
In the UK (and other countries north of the equator), SAD symptoms will typically develop at some point between September and November, continuing through until April or March and the start of Spring.
So what are the symptoms?
As with any form of depression, symptoms can vary from person to person but may include some or all of the following:
- Low mood – feeling sad, tearful or hopeless
- Loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed
- Low energy levels and feeling lethargic
- Problems with sleeping patterns (including sleeping more than usual and finding it difficult to wake up in a morning)
- Concentration problems
- Panic attacks
- Over- eating (which may lead to weight gain)
- Withdrawal from family and friends or other social situations
A diagnosis of SAD is based on your experiencing episodes of depression which have occurred at least two years running during the winter months – and with no symptoms in the spring.
How can you get help if you feel you are suffering from SAD?
As with other forms of depression, it is important that you do not diagnose yourself – if you are experiencing symptoms you should talk to your GP at the earliest opportunity.
Your doctor will be able to discuss your specific symptoms and advise on the best possible treatment for you. Treatments can include the following (or a combination of different options):
Self-help methods: these can involve incorporating regular exercise into your weekly routine and ensuring you get as much natural daylight as possible. (These can be effective techniques for treating mild cases of SAD).
Light therapy: this involves sitting in front of a special bright light for a period of time each day and/or using a dawn simulator. Find out more about SAD lamps with guidance from sad.org.uk
Drugs and talking therapy: for severe symptoms your GP may prescribe antidepressant drugs, whilst for others ‘talking treatments’ or cognitive behavioural therapy may be the best option.
You can read the story of one woman’s experience of SAD and how she was treated here
Other useful links:
- NHS Choices guide to seasonal affective disorder
- Treatment and support for SAD from mental health charity Mind.
- Tips on coping with SAD.