Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Definitive Guide to SAD and How to Deal With It.

We (human beings) tend to enjoy summer and dislike winter. There’s just something about the colder weather and shorter days that have a real impact on us. Some of us can handle it, but others really struggle as the chilly season takes its toll on their mental health. Then spring arrives, and they feel better again… until autumn rolls around and that slump in mood and motivation starts to return. 

Does this sound familiar? If you really struggle with your mood during the winter season, you could be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This disorder is more commonly known as the ‘winter blues.’

Surely you must have heard of SAD, but if not, this is your guide to the disorder and what you can do to treat it and cope with it.

What is SAD exactly?

The seasonal affective disorder is a period of depression that recurs around the same time each year. Normally, the symptom materialises around autumn and ebbing away in spring, hence the nickname of the ‘winter blues.’ 

As you can imagine, SAD is the type of mood disorder that makes you struggle to get out of bed since it’s more of a ‘winter thing.’ However, it’s possible (and less common) to experience it in summer, too, in which case the disorder would manifest itself in the spring and slowly diminish in the autumn. 

To receive a SAD diagnosis, you must meet the criteria for major depression that coincides with specific seasons for at least two years. You also have to experience seasonal depression more than non-seasonal.

A young boy looking spiritless out of the window, Seasonal Affective Disorder is more common than we think.

Who is at risk of SAD? Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with SAD. SAD is more common in people who live either far north or far south of the equator.

Unfortunately, you could be at risk of SAD if any of the following apply to you:

  • You’re a woman. SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than it is in men.
  • You live far from the equator. People who live far north or live far south of the equator get SAD more frequently.
  • There’s a family history of depression. If any history of depression runs in your family, you’re more likely to suffer from SAD than someone in whose family this isn’t the case.
  • You already get depression or suffer from bipolar disorder. The bad news is that if you suffer from either of these, the symptoms may become more acute in the SAD seasons.
  • You’re young. Younger adults are at a higher risk of experiencing SAD than older adults, who are at less risk as they get older. It’s not unknown for children and teenagers to suffer from the disorder.

These are some of the main reasons you could be at risk of SAD. If you happen to experience some form of mental or physical trauma during winter, this may also affect you in the future because you may start to recall the event and become depressed every winter.

boy looking out of window
Signs and symptoms of SAD may include social withdrawal.

What causes SAD?

We’d love to be able to tell you the exact reasons for this mood disorder, but the truth is no one has a definitive, proven answer. Many attribute the disorder to the shorter autumn and winter days, in which there’s less sunlight. The theory is that the lack of sunlight stops the hypothalamus region of the brain from working properly, which interferes with: 

The circadian rhythm, your sleep-wake circadian rhythm, is an internal clock that constantly runs, cycling between alertness and sleepiness.

The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock. The human body uses sunlight to help regulate sleep, mood, and appetite. The time we wake up is one of the elements the body uses sunlight to regulate, which means that the lower levels of light we endure during the winter can disrupt our internal clock and leave us groggy, sleepy, and disoriented. For this reason, there are fewer cases of SAD in countries that have lots of sunlight the whole year-round.

Melatonin, the production and release of melatonin from the pineal gland occur with a clear daily (circadian) rhythm.

When it’s dark, the body produces melatonin to help us sleep. When it’s light again, the body receives the body’s signal to stop producing it to stay awake and alert during the day. Due to the longer nights of autumn and winter, the body can produce too much melatonin, making us drowsy and causing our energy levels to fall. 

Serotonin production, What does a lack of serotonin cause?

Serotonin is a chemical linked to brain pathways that regulate our mood. The lesser exposure to sunlight in winter can prevent the body from making as much serotonin as it would on the longer spring and summer days. When mood-regulating, nerve-cell pathways in the brain don’t operate as well as they normally do, the results can be depression, weight gain, and fatigue. The serotonin deficit can also diminish sex drive and appetite. 

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

How can you tell if you’re in the grip of SAD? 

The disorder announces itself with a number of symptoms. Watch out for the following:

  • Constant low mood.
  • Little or no pleasure or interest in everyday activities that you enjoy normally.
  • Feelings of guilt, despair, and/or worthlessness.
  • Sleepy and lacking energy during the day.
  • Finding it harder to get out of bed in the morning and sleeping for longer than you normally do.
  • Craving foods that contain carbohydrates and putting on weight.

You may also be suffering from SAD if you experience:

  • Lower sex drive.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Pains and aches that you can’t explain.
  • Recourse to drugs or alcohol for comfort.
Seasonal affective disorder, lady looking dishevelled over a balcony.
Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder subset in which people have normal mental health throughout most of the year until the winter season begins.

How can you prepare for these winter blues?

Of course, seasonal affective disorder, as its name suggests, is seasonal. It stays with you, you get over it, and you live to fight another day until the next bout of SAD is back upon you the following autumn and winter. You know it’s coming, so you can prepare for it. Here are a few ways to preempt the SAD:

Start exercising

It’s no secret that exercising is good for depression because of the well-being it induces. You should exercise the whole year round anyway, but if you tend to suffer from SAD, you should make sure you’re already well into the habit of exercising before autumn arrives. Suppose you can exercise outdoors and get some sunlight, so much the better. Building exercise into your daily lifestyle will help you weather the SAD storm much easier.

Speak to your doctor before autumn or winter

It’s a good idea to visit your doctor before the SAD period strikes so that you can form a depression management plan. Then when the darker days come, you can spring into action and implement the plan. Your doctor may also want to prescribe you some medication to help you cope with the season change.

Start observing good sleep hygiene

Before the SAD season arrives, you should observe good sleep hygiene and learn to control your sleep cycle. Start by getting up early with the sun, going to bed at the same time every night, and making sure you sleep for eight hours each night. When the clocks go back, keep one clock set to the summertime and use this to set your sleep cycle.

Observe a healthy diet

Observing good nutrition and eating all the right foods will always be beneficial, whether you suffer from SAD or otherwise. Research has found a link between a high intake of fruit, vegetables, wholegrain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy foods and antioxidants, lesser consumption of animal foods, and a decreased level of depression. This is much different from fried foods, processed foods, and foods packed with refined grains, fat, or added sugars, which can make us feel worse, no matter how tasty we might find them. A good diet is as important for our emotional well-being as for our physical one.

woman looking annoyed
Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight is an indication of SAD. Try eating more fruit and vegetables. Instrumental in decreasing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

How do you treat SAD?

You can try various SAD treatments, but the first thing you should do is consult a doctor. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll rush straight in with medication to treat your SAD. They’ll ask you questions about your lifestyle, moods, and sleeping habits before they decide which is the best form of treatment for you. 

Here are some treatments they may suggest:

Cognitive behavioural therapy If you have CBT, you’ll have a number of sessions with a specially trained therapist.

The way we think and behave affects the way we feel. That’s the idea behind cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It’s a psychosocial form of therapy, and it’s all about changing the way we think about situations and how we take action to feel better about them. 

When you go down the CBT route, you’ll have several sessions with a CBT therapist across several weeks or months. The sessions could be:

  • One to one.
  • With a partner, if the SAD is damaging your relationship.
  • A group program.
  • A computer-CBT program, supported by work with a trained therapist.

Counselling and psychodynamic therapy

Counselling is a straightforward form of therapy in which you talk to a professional counsellor about your thoughts and worries. It’s slightly different from psychodynamic therapy, in which you discuss how you feel about yourself and others and talk about events in the past. The objective of psychodynamic therapy is to identify whether anything from your past impacts you in the present. 

Are these forms of therapy effective for treating SAD? It’s hard to say.

Does light therapy work for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Light therapy involves sitting beside a special lamp for around 30 minutes each morning to improve your mood. This lamp is called a ‘lightbox.’ Whether it’s an effective form of treatment is the subject of much discussion, but some studies have concluded it. Light therapy appears to have good short-term results, so although the lightbox will help you treat your SAD one winter, you can still expect the mood disorder to return the following winter.

Most people can use the lightboxes without any problems. If you’re taking a medication that increases your sensitivity to light or if you have an eye condition or eye damage that makes your eyes more sensitive to light, you should avoid this form of treatment. Otherwise, you should be okay. Lightboxes have filters that remove the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, cutting out the chance of skin or eye damage.

Although light therapy rarely produces side effects, it can sometimes produce the following:

  • Blurred vision.
  • Irritability.
  • Eye strain.
  • Headaches.
  • Tired.
  • Sleeping problems.

If any of these problems persist, you should speak to a doctor.

Note that lightboxes aren’t available on the NHS. When you’re buying a lightbox, check the box is suitable for treating SAD, including any medical approval of this; that you’re using the right intensity of light; and that you’re sitting by the light for the right amount of time. You can look for all these things on the instructions from the manufacturer. 

What is the best medication for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Sometimes doctors will prescribe antidepressants for severe cases of SAD. If you think you’ll need antidepressants, visit your doctor in autumn. The belief is that antidepressants work best at the start of the winter, so you need to see your doctor before SAD starts. 

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the antidepressants of SAD choice because they increase serotonin levels to lift your mood. Note that the antidepressants may take 4 to 6 weeks to have a notable impact. It would be best if you kept taking them as prescribed until your doctor tells you to stop gradually.

woman looking quizzical

Top tips for coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Unfortunately, you can’t stop winter from arriving. Although you can preempt the SAD with some of the suggestions above — and still employ tactics such as taking exercise and observing a healthy diet when it does strike — you may still feel the disorder working on your mood and body. You don’t have to roll over and let it, however. 

Here are a few things you can do to lift your spirits and not let the disorder have it all its own way:

Get some natural sunlight

The temperatures might be a little crisp, but that doesn’t mean you have to hibernate the whole winter. Get outside, enjoy the fresh air and, in doing so, get some natural sunlight on your skin. Do this as much as possible to boost your mood. Incorporating a daily walk into your routine can help you get more sunlight regularly.

If you’re struggling to get yourself outside for whatever reason, make your home as bright as possible by keeping the curtains as wide open as possible and sit by the window. Basically, avoid darkness when you can during the day.

Have things to look forward to

If you’re feeling in despair and have no plans ahead of you, life can feel pretty miserable, so give yourself something you can look forward to. It could be a holiday, an evening with friends, or even just the thought of taking part in a seasonal celebration. There’s plenty to celebrate in winter, and you do not need to feel trapped in the house. 

Making plans can see you through and help you to be more positive about the situation. If you can’t muster up the good spirits, remember that it won’t be long before spring, and you’ll be feeling better again.

group of women laughing

Connect with others

Reach out to friends and family, whether it’s by text, email, or phone, and grab the opportunity to visit them or let them come to see you. Winter can cause feelings of isolation, but this doesn’t have to be the case when you have a good support network around you. It’s also a good way to chat to others about how you’re feeling and exchange tips on coping with the season. You never know — they might be feeling just as bad as you are and be glad of the companionship.

Get cosy

Okay, we’re going to contradict ourselves here ever so slightly. So, you don’t need to feel trapped in the house, and you should get out — but you can stay indoors if you want as long as you make yourself as cosy as possible. After all, it’s not a prison! Part of this could be keeping your mind busy with your favourite hobbies or interests. You can also cook yourself some hearty soups, stews, and other comfort foods. 

You can handle SAD

Winter comes, and there’s nothing we can do about it. SAD comes, too, and if you suffer from it, you might not be able to stop it dead in its tracks, but there are definitely measures you can take to cope more comfortably throughout the season. Putting yourself in the right frame of mind with lifestyle changes that can preempt SAD will help, pursue activities and make concerted efforts to feel better when it arrives. The strategies can make the days feel worth getting out of bed for, rather than letting the disorder have all the fun and force you to stay under the covers all day. That won’t do you any good, even if it is all nice and warm under there!