Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern. The episodes of depression tend to occur at the same time each year, usually during the winter. As with other types of depression, two of the main symptoms of SAD are a low mood and a lack of interest in life.
SAD consists of depressive symptoms that can often be incapacitating for affected individuals. However, it is a treatable disorder with a wide variety of strategies that have been proven to ease symptoms and help people get back on track with their lives.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
If you have SAD, you might experience some of the signs and symptoms below. But it’s different for different people, and can vary season to season, so you might also have other kinds of feelings which aren’t listed here:
- Lack of energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Not wanting to see people
- Feeling sad, low, tearful, guilty, or hopeless
- Feeling anxious, angry and agitated
- Being more prone to physical health problems, such as colds, infections, or other illnesses
- Sleeping too much, or difficulty waking up (common with SAD in winter)
- Sleeping too little, or waking up a lot (common with SAD in summer)
- Changes in your appetite, for example feeling hungrier or not wanting to eat
- Losing interest in sex or physical contact
- Suicidal feelings
- Other symptoms of depression
If you also have other mental health problems, you might find that things get worse at times when you’re affected by SAD.
Treatment for seasonal affective disorder is often like that of clinical depression. However, methods to treat SAD generally focus on exposure to light since people often experience symptoms during the wintertime when less natural sunlight is available. You can incorporate the self-care methods listed below into daily routines to help improve your mood during seasons when you typically feel more depressed.
1. Increasing exposure to natural sunlight:
Since SAD, in part, results from a lack of sun exposure, getting adequate sunlight is one of the most effective ways to help relieve symptoms.
Aim for early morning sunlight for around 20 minutes of exposure whenever possible, this significantly improve depression symptoms, improving mood, feelings of self-worth, and increased overall happiness.
- Your strategy should include:
- Positioning yourself near windows while working indoors
Getting outdoors for a 20-minute walk at least five days per week
2. Light therapy:
This is a common treatment for seasonal affective disorder, and the aim is to compensate for the reduced natural sunlight available during the winter months. Light therapy works by exposing you to very bright light as you sit in front of a special light box. This exposure to light helps regulate circadian rhythms, which manages the sleep-wake cycle.
- It’s generally recommended that you sit for about 30 minutes each morning during autumn and winter, with your eyes open but not staring directly into the light box.
- You can purchaselight boxes online, but you should seek medical advice before starting light therapy.
This treatment may not be suitable for people with eye disease or who take certain medications.
3. Establishing a regular sleeping routine:
Following a consistent sleep-wake routine by going to bed and waking up at about the same time each day should help balance your mood. This can be difficult so first focus on waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
Natural circadian rhythms are disrupted due to seasonal affective disorder. This is because changes in the amount of sunlight during different seasons affect your sleep-wake cycle.
Poor sleep quality can also lead to a worsening of depression symptoms. Try sticking to structured sleep cycles for 6–8 weeks, as it can help restore a healthy sleeping pattern.
Regular exercise benefits mental and physical health and can help you maintain a healthy and steady routine.
Tips for removing common barriers to exercise include:
- Ensuring exercise fits easily into your daily routine with an accessible location
- Selecting a form of exercise that you enjoy or at least endure well enough to continue to feel motivated to do it
- Incorporating incidental exercise into each day, such as taking stairs instead of an elevator, doing more housework, or taking on hobbies such as gardening that can increase activity levels
Exercising as much as possible outdoors and in the daytime for the added benefit of natural sunlight exposure
5. Stress management:
During the winter, when feelings of depression are heightened, people often feel less able to cope with stress, causing a worsening of depression symptoms.
Some strategies to reduce stress related to SAD are:
- Proper planning to avoid being overburdened by tasks, commitments, or stressful activities during the winter season, when coping mechanisms might not be as strong
- Delaying major decisions until symptoms have improved
- Mind-body practices such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi
- Relaxing activities such as getting a massage or reading
6. Counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy:
Although it’s common to withdraw when living with SAD, having open and honest conversations with a supportive person can be very beneficial. It may help you feel understood and not so alone in your suffering.
Psychotherapy treatment can be as effective as light therapy in treating the seasonal affective disorder. Some options for effective communication with others include:
- Joining a support group for seasonal affective disorder
- Finding a therapist
- Finding a supportive friend or family member to communicate with regularly
7. Proper nutrition, eating patterns and supplements:
A diet rich in unprocessed foods, proteins (lean meats, seafood), vegetables, fruits, and complex carbohydrates is recommended and can protect against mental health disorders. Avoiding high-sugar foods such as refined grains, pasta, candy, soft drinks, and processed foods with added sugar is also important.
The important thing is to focus on eating whole, healthy foods and reducing sugar intake.
Vitamins are essential components of diet and are vital for life whether found in food or supplements and the can be powerful in regulating mood and energy levels.
Of course, it’s important to consult a medical professional before taking higher doses of vitamins for non-medical use, as excess amounts of vitamins in the body can have damaging effects. Here is the low down on some of the most beneficial vitamins to combat depression:
- Vitamin D: is responsible for many bodily processes, including mood regulation.
- B vitamins: are a group of vitamins involved in many mental processes, including energy production. Deficiencies have been associated with depression and reduced bran function. They are found naturally in foods such as vegetables (especially leafy greens), whole grains, eggs, fruits, fish, liver, and other animal proteins.
8. Socializing and behavioural activation:
SAD and can worsen feelings of isolation and loneliness. Social contact is essential to our overall happiness and sense of belonging, but our type of social interactions also seems to matter, face-to-face contact is significantly more effective than purely virtual interactions or socializing over the phone. Frequency of contact was also important, aim for three or more times per week with trusted and supportive people rather than people with whom you might experience conflict.
Behavioural activation is a technique used in therapy to help you find enjoyable activities to make up for a lack of interest when you’re suffering from SAD. Engaging in pleasant activities helps improve mood through positive reinforcement that’s often lacking if you’re depressed. The activities selected should be personal to you.
- Examples of pleasurable activities include hobbies or passions (dancing, arts and crafts, sports, travel, watching enjoyable TV shows/comedy), social activities (parties, outings, pets), and sensory experiences (taking a bath).
Good luck with managing your S.A.D symptoms this winter by focussing on self-care activities. Don’t forget if you would like some additional support our 8Wise™ Wellness Programme focusses on Mental Wealth to develop optimal levels of Mental Health and Wellbeing. It can help you address every aspect of your health and wellbeing and improve your quality of life.
If you would like to book an 8Wise™ session or register for our next 8Wise™ Wellness Programme cohort, get in touch today.
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