Why seasonal affective disorder is more than just the ‘winter blues’

AT this time of year, you might hear people talking about seasonal affective disorder, or SAD for short. More than simply the ‘winter blues’, SAD is a form of depression that affects people during a particular season.
Although people suffer from SAD in the summer, typically it is more prominent during the winter months.

People suffering with SAD might exhibit a number of the following symptoms:
● Persistent low mood
● A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
● Irritability
● Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
● Feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
● Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
● Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
● Difficulty concentrating
● Decreased sex drive
● Becoming less sociable.
For some people, these symptoms can have a significant and detrimental impact on their daily life.

The GP surgery
According to MIND, if you also suffer from other mental health problems, you might find that things get worse at times when you’re affected by SAD.
You should contact the GP if you think you might have SAD and you’re struggling to cope, or if you are worried about your health. The GP will carry out an assessment that will include checking your mental health.
You may be asked about your mood, lifestyle, your diet, patterns of sleep and how your thoughts and behaviours change with the seasons.
They may also ask whether your symptoms prevent you from carrying out normal activities and whether there’s anything in your personal or family history that may be a contributory factor, such as a family history of depression.

There are no exact answers to why people suffer from SAD during the winter. One theory suggests the lack of sunlight can have an adverse effect on the hypothalamus, stopping it from functioning properly.
This might lead to an increase in production of a hormone called melatonin, which controls your sleep/wake cycle and is responsible for making you feel sleepy.
Lack of sunlight might also decrease production of serotonin. As this hormone affects your mood, appetite and sleep, it is thought this reduction can lead to feelings of depression.
It can also affect your circadian rhythm, your body’s natural ‘clock’ may not function properly, which can result in symptoms associated with SAD.

Treating SAD
It is not always easy to diagnose SAD. The main indicator is if the symptoms have occurred at similar times of the year for at least two years or more, and if periods of feeling well follow the periods of depression.
There are a number of treatments available. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that SAD should be treated in the same way as other types of depression.
Your GP will talk you through the options and decide which ones are best suited to your particular circumstances.
Lifestyle changes – exercising regularly can be beneficial, and if you do it outdoors you will increase your exposure to sunlight.
Counselling – talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Medicine – your GP will talk you through what is available should they feel you would benefit from taking a course of antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Be clear on possible side effects and how long it takes for the medicine to begin working.
Light therapy – this uses a special lamp, or light box, that is designed to simulate exposure to natural sunlight.
Although light boxes are very popular, NICE is undecided on their effectiveness in treating SAD. Light boxes will not be suitable for everyone, so ask your GP for advice.
Living with SAD can be very difficult. If you suspect that you or someone you know may be suffering from SAD, as well as visiting the GP, there are a number of things you can do at home to help with your symptoms.
For example, you can try and get as much natural sunlight as possible, whether through exercising outdoors or even going for regular walks.
Try and bring as much natural light into your home as you can and sit near windows whenever possible. Try different methods of de-stressing and learning to relax. Find one that works for you.
Be open with your friends and family. Explain to them how you feel and how your feelings and behaviours change during the winter months. Articulating your feelings can help you understand yourself better and it will help the people close to you offer better support.
Eat a healthy and balanced diet, avoiding overloading with carbohydrates. Where possible, learn to recognise and avoid stressful situations.
Keep a diary. This can be helpful in the short-term as a means of recognising the signs that you are struggling, but long-term it can help with diagnosis and working out what helps alleviate your symptoms.

If you need to talk
● Samaritans – call 116 123 or email
● SANEline – support for people experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else. 0300 304 7000 (4.30pm–10.30pm every day).
● Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – 0800 58 58 58 (5pm–midnight every day).
● Contact Mind’s Infoline on 0300 123 3393
● Ask your GP for details of support groups.

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