What is SAD syndrome and what helps?

I dread the clocks going back an hour.  It means as we move into winter, it’s dark at 4pm in the afternoon.  Many of us feel a little down when summer ends, the nights draw in and the weather gets colder.   However, for some, SAD syndrome can have a serious impact on their lives and ability to function.

What is SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons.   Many people’s symptoms start in the Autumn and continue through the winter months.   A minority of people  suffer from SAD in the spring or early summer. 

The main theory is that a lack of sunlight causes part of the brain (the hypothalamus) to stop working properly.  This in turn affects:

  • the hormone melatonin.  This hormone makes you feel sleepy.  People with SAD may produce too much of this hormone and therefore feel like they need to sleep a lot more than usual 

  • the hormone serotonin – this hormone affects your mood, appetite and sleep.  Low serotonin is linked to depression.

  • your natural body clock.  Sunlight sends important messages to your brain about when to wake, sleep etc. so your natural body clock might be upset by darker days and longer nights.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms (which are similar to depression) may include

  • A loss of joy in everyday pleasures

  • A lack of interest in things you usually like doing

  • Irritability and/or anxiety

  • A lack of energy

  • A constant feeling of despair

  • Tiredness and a desire to sleep for longer than normal

  • Cravings for carbohydrates

What can help you feel better?

It is important to consider how the symptoms are affecting your life.  If you are struggling to cope you should visit your GP.  The GP may prescribe counselling and/or anti- depressants if your condition is severe.

If you feel you can manage your condition yourself, it is worth trying the following:

  • Try to get outdoors at least once a day during daylight hours

  • Invest in a light box – a special light that is very bright (Typically the recommended intensity of light is 10,000 lux).  I use this one on my desk throughout the winter months.

  • They also make light boxes that wake you up by simulating dawn, gradually waking you up as the light becomes brighter.  I had one of these and found it a very relaxing way to wake up.

  • Exercise – this boosts your serotonin

  •  Try guided meditation or practising mindfulness exercises

How do I know if I am suffering from SAD?

Consider the list of symptoms above and see how many match the way you are feeling.  Think back to this time in previous years, is there a pattern you can identify?  Are you generally happier, more energetic and optimistic in the summer months?

If you feel your symptoms are manageable try some of the self-care remedies listed above.  If you feel you are not coping, whether it is SAD or not, you should seek help from your GP/medical practitioner for an expert diagnosis, and on-going support.

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