Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), otherwise referred to as seasonal depression, is a form of depression which is linked to changes in seasons. Symptoms become apparent at and disappear at approximately the same times each year. In order for a GP or other medical professional to diagnose an individual with seasonal affective disorder, they must have experienced the same symptoms throughout winter (or summer, in less common cases) for a period of two years or more.
Seasonal affective disorder causes a large variety of different symptoms, including physical, behavioural, cognitive and emotional symptoms (which we will touch on in this article). As a result, an individual suffering from SAD’s ability to function can be impacted significantly; they may have trouble leaving the house, interacting with friends, family and other people, and may experience difficulty achieving what they need to at school and/or work. A reduction in the ability to concentrate, think clearly and be productive can make completing everyday tasks feel very overwhelming and challenging.
Let’s take a look now at the signs and symptoms of SAD, potential causes, risk factors for the development of SAD, as well as things you can implement to help you manage and cope with seasonal affective depression.
Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
As mentioned above, the signs and symptoms of SAD are many, and can impact a person’s physical, mental and emotional health.
Sufferers of seasonal depression often feel intensely flat and sad. SAD often leads to a reduction in energy levels and leaves a person feeling sluggish and very tired. Waking up in the morning can be especially challenging for a person suffering from SAD. Excessive or oversleeping is common, particularly in cooler weather. Feeling flat and sluggish through winter often means a person’s appetite and weight often increase, and a craving for carbohydrates (sweet and/or savoury) is common. (On the other hand, for a person who suffers from SAD during the summer months, they may struggle to sleep (i.e. insomnia) and have a reduced appetite and hence potentially lose weight).
A person affected by seasonal depression may lose interest in activities that previously brought great pleasure (such as hobbies) and SAD may cause them to withdraw from leaving the house and seeing other people. They may also take part in less physical activity than normal. Feeling anxious, irritable and agitated is not uncommon for sufferers of SAD, alongside feeling hopeless and worthless. SAD can impact a person’s ability to concentrate and be productive. Some sufferers of seasonal depression may also have thoughts relating to death/suicide.
Causes of Seasonal Depression
The exact causes of SAD are still not fully understood. A number of factors may be involved regarding the development of seasonal depression, and include a reduction in sunlight hours each day, as well as disruptions to serotonin and melatonin levels.
During the winter months when the days are shorter, our circadian rhythm may be disrupted, which can cause a person to feel flat. Reduced exposure to sunlight can cause the body’s serotonin levels to drop and may affect a person’s mood. Levels of melatonin, a neurotransmitter important for sleep, may also be disrupted.
Risk Factors and Potential Triggers for the Development of Seasonal Depression
More women than men (and particularly younger rather than older people) are diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. A family history of depression may also be associated with an individual suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Individuals suffering from bipolar disorder (or major depression) may also find particular seasons (i.e. winter, more often than not) particularly challenging. People whom live in areas with very short winter days or very long summer days may also be more likely to suffer from seasonal depression than those that live closer to the equator.
It is not uncommon for people to be exposed to less sunlight over winter compared to the warmer months of the year, and as a result, vitamin D levels tend to drop. Vitamin D has a number of vital functions in the body, including boosting our mood, and is also important for immunity, cognitive function and weight management. Therefore, low Vitamin D levels may be a potential trigger for the development of SAD. If you are concerned you are not getting enough Vitamin D each day, talk to your doctor, who can educate you regarding dietary changes and the need for any supplements.
Eating a poor diet full of high fat and high sugar foods as opposed to a healthy, balanced diet rich in nutritious wholefoods can leave you feeling sluggish, flat and lacking the energy you need to go about your day, and may be a trigger for the development of seasonal depression, particularly in cold weather. (Similarly, consuming more alcohol than is considered healthy may also leave you feeling sluggish, and can also prevent you from getting a quality sleep overnight).
Cold temperatures and rainfall can make the thought of exercising (particularly outdoors) during winter challenging and overwhelming. However, exercise has a large number of benefits for sufferers of depression (which we shall touch on later). A lack of exercise, particularly during the cooler months, may be a potential trigger for the development of seasonal affective disorder.
Cold and wet weather outside can lend itself to the temptation to stay in and remain cosy on the couch etc., which can result in a lack of social interaction – a very important factor in maintaining quality mental health and overall happiness. Hence, a lack of social interaction through winter may be a potential trigger for the development of seasonal depression.
Things You Can Do to Help You Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder
Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule
When the weather is cool and your bedroom is dark in the morning during winter, it can be very tempting to sleep in and remain cosy under your blankets. However, maintaining a regular sleep schedule (i.e. waking up at the same time and going to sleep at the same time, seven days a week) can help to prevent you ruminating over the cold weather and procrastinating re: getting started with your day. Ensure you are getting enough quality sleep according to your age group (as per the National Sleep Foundation’s recommendations, which can be viewed here), and ensure your bedroom is conducive to sleep (i.e. dark, cool, cosy and free of light or noise sources that may keep you awake).
Hop Out of Bed with the Sun
Many people operate at their best when waking with the sun and sleeping through the dark of the night. Aligning your circadian rhythm (or internal body clock) with natural sunlight can help you to get maximum sunlight during your day and this may help to boost your mood.
Stick to Your Routine
In addition to keeping a regular sleeping routine, maintaining a daily and/or weekly routine may assist you to manage your seasonal depression. Your daily routine may include meal times, exercise and relaxation time, for example, and your weekly routine may include time to engage in your hobbies as well as time for socialising with friends and family. Keeping up everyday activities can help you maintain your energy levels, distract you from feeling flat, as well as prevent you from becoming socially withdrawn (which has the potential to leave you feeling further depressed).
Get Outdoors as Much as Possible
Whether it be morning exercise outdoors, making walking or riding to/from work part of your commute, eating your lunch outside or taking a stroll around the block, getting outdoors into natural light (whether it is sunny or not) can help to boost your mood. This may particularly be the case in the first two hours following hopping out of bed.
Seek Natural Light Indoors
Bringing as much natural light indoors (at home and in the workplace) as possible can help to enhance your mood. At home, you might like to consider opening curtains and blinds and adding skylights indoors. It may also be of benefit to trim any foliage or move any items outdoors that may be blocking sunlight from entering your home. Sitting near to a window at work, thereby increasing your exposure to natural light throughout your work day (where appropriate), may also be beneficial.
Add Warmth Indoors
For some people, ensuring their home (and work environment, where applicable) is nice and warm can help them to feel brighter and more comfortable during cooler months. (If you suffer from summer depression, keeping cool indoors during the hot months may help).
Strategies for keeping warm indoors during the cold months of the year may include rugging up in warm jumpers and cosy slippers, turning on the heater, having blankets handy where you find yourself sitting or laying still, enjoying a hot shower or warm bath, as well as enjoying warm meals and hot drinks (e.g. herbal tea).
Phototherapy (Light Therapy)
Phototherapy, sometimes referred to as light therapy, involves sitting nearby to a specialised light box which is designed to mimic natural light, which can help to reduce symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. In most cases, light boxes are used in the morning after waking up. It is best to speak to a professional (such as your local GP) as to the most appropriate light box for you. A doctor can help you to understand how frequently you should use the light box and at what intensity, etc.
Make Regular Exercise a Priority
Regular exercise can be very beneficial for people suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Benefits of regular exercise for SAD sufferers include enhanced mood, due to the release of feel-good endorphins, the release of physical tension and improved energy levels. Regular exercise can serve as a healthy distraction tool from sad and negative thoughts and can help to boost a person’s self-confidence and resilience. Regular exercise encourages positive social interaction, when enjoyed with others, and also promotes quality sleep and overall good health.
Keep Up Your Social Activity
When we feel depressed, socialising with friends and family can often feel too difficult and energy-consuming. However, when suffering from seasonal depression, it is particularly important to maintain social activity with the people you enjoy spending time with. Socialising gives you the opportunity to speak to someone about how you are feeling, as well as the opportunity to have fun (hence boosting your mood). Social activity can also serve as a healthy distraction from sad and negative thoughts.
Plan and Engage in Enjoyable Activities Over Winter
A change in seasons can cause a person with seasonal affective disorder to stop engaging in activities they normally would, such as sporting activities, hobbies and spending time with family and friends. When you are feeling intensely sad and flat due to seasonal depression, take some time to write down a list of all the activities you enjoy doing, and specifically, note the activities you can enjoy in the winter months (whether they be indoors or outdoors), whether you have tried them before or not. Do your best to make a special effort to enjoy those activities, in order to help you boost your mood. It may assist you to get a friend or family member involved too.
Take A Holiday
If it is the winter months you struggle with, try to schedule a holiday to a warm location to enhance your mood. A break away to warmer weather and sunshine can be very beneficial for sufferers of seasonal depression. (If you struggle with hot weather, consider the opposite – taking a holiday to a cool environment instead). Remember, regular breaks (whether at home or away) are important for overall mental health.
Manage Your Stress
Stress can worsen your symptoms when suffering from seasonal depression, hence it is very important to lessen your load and responsibilities (as much as possible) when battling with seasonal affective disorder. For example, you may wish to take regular breaks (particularly when you are feeling overwhelmed), engage in some enjoyable form of exercise and/or give mindfulness meditation a shot.
The winter (or summer, in some cases) months can be especially challenging for a person suffering from seasonal depression. In order to improve and feel happy once more, it is important for a person suffering from seasonal affective disorder to seek professional help and treatment. Feel free to get in touch with our friendly team at Brain Wellness Spa for help with your depression, so you can get back to the happiest version of yourself as soon as possible.