Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Have you ever noticed that your mood seems to change from season to season? In spring and summer your mood may appear to be generally positive but as soon as winter comes along, the feelings of cheer and optimism begin to be replaced by more gloomy and negative thoughts.

These are common emotions to experience, but if the symptoms grow to such severity that your day-to-day life begins to be affected negatively, you may well be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is also known as ‘winter depression’ as the symptoms are generally more visible and severe in the winter months as opposed to the lighter seasons.

There are exceptions however, as some people report symptoms occurring during the summer and experience an easier winter. Common symptoms of SAD to look out for include persistent low moods, a complete loss of pleasure or interest in even the slightest things, feelings of irritation, severe feelings of despair, anxiety, guilt and worthlessness, lethargy and feelings of sleepiness during the day and craving of carbohydrates. This last one frequently results in weight gain.

Other symptoms may include trouble with concentration, an increased vulnerability to health problems such as the common cold and infections. In the most extreme cases, suicidal thoughts may also be experienced. The severity of these symptoms will vary from person to person but, generally, they will be recognised as symptoms of SAD if the severity is sufficient to have an impact upon your daily life and if they are recognised to be recurring during specific seasons of the year. If you suffer from other mental health problems, you may find the effects of these are exacerbated by having SAD as well.

The exact cause of SAD is still unknown, although several theories exist. Most commonly, it is connected to a reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter months of autumn and winter. The primary theory is that a lack of sunlight stops a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus functioning properly.

This is thought to have a series of effects, including an increased production of melatonin, a hormone that induces feelings of sleepiness and a decrease in the amount of serotonin, which influences the mood, appetite and sleep. It is also hypothesized that the body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm, is affected.

The body clock needs sunlight in order to time various bodily functions such as when you wake up, so any disruption of this could result in SAD being developed. SAD is considered to be more common in countries where the differences in weather and daylight hours from season to season are greater, including England and Wales.

It is also thought that people who have spent part of their lives near the equator and then move away may also be at greater risk of developing SAD. If you suspect you are suffering from SAD, the first step you should take is to make an appointment to see your GP. They will give you an assessment to determine the state of your mental health. Questions during the assessment may cover such subjects as your lifestyle, you’re eating habits and your sleeping patterns, plus whether or not you experience changes in your mood from season to season. If you are diagnosed with SAD, your GP will determine which course of treatment is most suitable for.

There are a range of different treatments available for SAD. First, you may be advised to take specific lifestyle measures, such as getting outside often to absorb all the natural sunlight you can and exercising as regularly as possible.

Light therapy may be prescribed to you. This involves the use of a special lamp known as a light box recreates the effects of exposure to natural sunlight. Certain forms of talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling may be offered or you may be put on medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.

There are various self-help steps you can try as well. If your SAD generally occurs during winter months, then try to make the most of the lighter months. Spend time walking through parks and gardens for example or sit for periods of time near a window if you prefer. You can also plan ahead for the winter months when your energy levels will generally be lower.

Try to prepare and freeze your meals in advance if your winter SAD prohibits you from cooking. Alternatively, if your SAD usually occurs during summer months, make sure you drink plenty of water in order to stay hydrated. Wear wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses to provide yourself with some shade. Try to keep busy indoors if you can.

This may include visits to public libraries, the cinema or the local leisure centre, depending on what your favourite activities are. Reaching out whenever you’re feeling low isn’t always easy, but it may be worth your while to do so. There are various helplines you can contact if you cannot confide in your family and friends and would prefer to speak to a friendly and knowledgeable stranger.

These include the Samaritans, who are willing to listen to anything that’s upsetting you, SANEline, who specialise in supporting people with mental health woes and the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) whose support is especially geared towards those who are at risk of or contemplating suicide.

Do not hesitate to pick up the phone. Talking isn’t always easy but it is always beneficial in the long run. If you find yourself suffering from SAD, do not delay. Take action as soon as possible. It is an unpleasant condition to have but it can be overcome. Contact your GP today and book an assessment. Don’t forget to try some self-help techniques while you are waiting


This article is for educational and informational purposes only and must not be used or taken as a substitute in any form for any medical advice, medication you are currently taking or any alternative treatments without the prior advice, guidance and consent from your medical doctor. Please speak with your doctor fist before making any changes to your diet or medicine as a result of reading any information laid out on this website or in this or any other articles.

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