Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that ebbs and flows with the changing of seasons. Sufferers often find that the colder, winter months are their ‘down’ periods, whilst warmer, summer months they are happier. Whilst this is the most common scenario, people with SAD have been known to feel SAD in the summer and better in the winter.
It is more common with females between 18-35 years of age, but I can affect anyone, at any time. It can last several months, to many years depending on the individual.
Difference between SAD and normal low mood
Everyone can feel ‘down’ from time to time, but a healthy person will only feel minor low mood symptoms and bounce back rapidly to their usual ‘happy’ mood. If you have noticed your mood has slumped for a longer than usual period, you may want to consider some help.
Ask yourself these few questions:
- Do I normally feel like this? If you usually feel this way, then try and understand if it is part of your personality. Or whether you think something is amiss.
- Is there a pattern to my moods? You can keep a mood tracker. It can be a detailed mood journal, or a simple mood chart.
- Is my low mood linked to an internal/external source? It is hormonal? I know that I dip when I’m due on my period. I’m like the Tasmanian devil on a rampage for a couple for days, then spend a few days cleaning up my mess! Also, I know that when I’m overly stressed at work, I can project that onto myself and curl up for a few days.
- Have others noticed I am acting out of character? Our nearest and dearest are a good indicator if our behaviour is normal or not. Ask them. Ask for their honest opinion as to how you’ve seemed to be acting. This will help identify if you are overthinking something, or if you really are acting ‘out of the norm’.
- How long have I felt like this? Try and trace back your (lack of) steps to identify when you noticed the start of this slump.
Whilst many of these are also symptoms of depression, it is important to note the differences between the two conditions. Also, it is important to note that these are additional symptoms you don’t normally experience at other times of the year.
Some typical symptoms may be:
- a persistent low mood that appears at certain times of the year
- feeling irritable, guilty, self-deprecation
- low self-esteem, emotional and tearful
- stressed or anxious
- reduced sex drive
- becoming less sociable or active than normal
- feel lethargic (lacking in energy)
- sleep issues such as sleeping more/less than usual, sleep during the day
- difficulty in concentrating
- changes in appetite
- suicidal feelings
These symptoms can be mild, severe, or anything in between.
How do I know if I have SAD or Depression?
Although the symptoms of both are very similar, as SAD is a form of depression, SAD will disappear with the changing of seasons. Depression won’t. I suffer with depression, but also notice that when the weather turns for the worst so does my mental health.
I’m sure everyone has days during the cold, wet months of winter, when they just want to curl up on the sofa with a hot drink and films. This doesn’t necessarily you have any ill-health to worry about. That is, until you notice you’ve been in the same position for days (or weeks)! Even worse, you’ve probably not washed during this period, and your sleeping is off the charts! Fear not, don’t be ashamed, there are many other people out there suffering the same. And there is hope at the end of the season (it’s called the sun).
The main indication would be when you feel these periods of low mood. If you feel this way most of the year, with very little let up then I would suggest its more depression. If you only get ‘down’ for a couple of months a year (in winter) but are completely fine the rest of the year, then it’s more likely to be SAD.
Why do we get SAD?
Just like the causes of depression are relatively unknown, so are the causes of SAD. The main cause is thought to be a lack of sunlight which may stop the hypothalamus working properly. It’s also possible that some people are more vulnerable to SAD as a result of their genes, as some cases appear to run in families.
Some of the effects of the hypothalamus not functioning normally are:
- Higher production of melatonin – melatonin is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy, too much can cause you to sleep more than usual
- Lower production of serotonin – serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep. Low serotonin levels are linked to feelings of depression
- Disrupted body’s internal clock – your body uses sunlight to time various important functions, such as when you wake up, so lower light levels during the winter may interfere with your body clock causing symptoms of SAD.
I have symptoms, what should I do?
The surest way to find out what’s wrong is to seek medical advice, either through your GP or via your local mental health team. The are numerous other reasons you could be feeling many of these symptoms, from anemia, to dehydration. Apart from waiting for the seasons to change, there are things that can help with SAD.
- Exposure to natural light – try sitting near a south facing window or go out for a walk or two each day. You can also get natural daylight lamps, alarm clocks, and other cool gadgets to help.
- Exercise – this will help with your body producing serotonin.
- Healthy food – sounds like a cliché but I always notice how much more energy I have when I have a good meal or two compared to snacks, piles of pasta, or just plain old junk food.
- Relaxation – try and avoid stress. I use meditation to help me sleep and often use relaxing music to unwind. Find what works for you and build it into your routine.
- Therapy – counselling or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) may be an option to explore. Talk to your GP for more information. You could even try light therapy under your GPs advice and observation.
- Medication – there are some low dose anti-depressants that can be prescribed by you GP.
You should never self-diagnose through internet forums or webMDs. This article is purely for information and is not to be used as a self-diagnostic tool or a replacement for your GP.
In the words of Florence,
‘How very little can be done under the spirit of fear’Florence Nightingale