Seasonal Affective Disorder can affect anyone during the change of any season, but right now is primetime.
With the beginning of autumn this month and the onset of rainier weather over the past few days, there’s no denying it: the colder seasons are upon us. Worryingly, for a number of us, this change in the weather, plus the shorter days, can bring with it an unwelcome effect on our mental health. As the darker evenings draw in, and the mornings often begin in total darkness, some of us begin to experience the inescapable feeling of depression, exhaustion and anxiety, which can be caused by Seasonal Affective Disorder.
According to research from the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych), some 3% of the UK population suffer a “significant” version of this condition, defined as experiencing symptoms badly enough “to interfere with your life”. However, it is predicted considerably more may suffer from a milder form – with testing company York Test citing research that three in ten Brits are susceptible. Celebrity gardener Monty Don has opened up in a number of interviews about suffering from the condition.
What’s less publicised is the gendered nature of this condition: according to RPsych, women are three times more likely to be affected by SAD than men, with women of childbearing age the most affecting. SAD syndromes strike as soon as summer ends and sunlight diminishes, a low mood every autumn and winter specifically can be a sign.
Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms
Also described as the winter blues, according to sufferers this really doesn’t cover the true debilitating extent of SAD. Symptoms include depression, fatigue, low self-esteem, withdrawing from social events and commitments, tearfulness, reduced libido and anxiety. The fatigue can be crushing; a tiredness which seriously restricts day-to-day activities.
Although primarily linked to low serotonin levels and a disrupted body clock, a physical illness or trauma can trigger SAD too. It could also be attributed to higher amounts of melatonin being produced in the night and later into the morning, resulting in a greater desire for sleep. With light being a natural stimulant, once this starts reducing, natural circadian rhythms are dramatically disrupted. Because of where we are positioned, those of us in the UK and Ireland undergo substantial changes in light due to being in the higher latitudes of the northern hempishere.
It’s also believed that your birth season could have an effect on your likelihood of developing SAD, with those born in the winter months more susceptible according to a 2010 study.
Recognised treatment for SAD includes Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, anti-depressants and light therapy.
Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments
While there is no permanent cure for SAD, there are a number of treatments that can be employed during the months when it occurs.
“Everyone’s affected differently by SAD, so what works for one person won’t for another,” Sue Pavlovich of the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA) has told the NHS. “But there’s usually something that will help, so don’t give up if the first remedy you try doesn’t work. Just keep trying.”
Light therapy specialists, Lumie, have been developing products to help with the effects of SAD for 25 years. PR Manager Malgo Dzierugo explains, “the end of British Summer Time also marks the start of colder and gloomier days, which in turn means less motivation and productivity as well as seasonal mood changes.”
With light therapy products including body clocks simulating dawn for an easier wakeup and lights to boost mood and energy levels, Lumie have thoroughly researched what works best for those with the condition.
Malgo continues: “Bright light therapy (BLT) is a fairly well-known way to help SAD sufferers alleviate depressive symptoms. For best results, we typically recommend using both sleep/wakeup lights as well as SAD lamps, since many SAD sufferers really struggle to get up in the morning”.
Mental health charity MIND notes the importance of a strong network and perhaps looking into support groups to share your story with those experiencing similar symptoms. In addition to light therapy, being outside and exercising is thought to help with the dreaded lethargy, as well as focusing on a healthy diet.
It is well documented that SAD sufferers crave carbohydrates, and MIND emphasise how vital it is to balance carbs like pasta and potatoes with fresh fruit and veg, so you avoid feeling even more sluggish. A GP may also advised taking vitamins B12 and D (vitamin D deficiency has been linked by studies to SAD), to encourage a further boost.
Other things you can do include keeping warm with hot food and drink plus warm clothing; walking outside, which has been proven to reduce depressive symptoms; and opting for paler colours for your interiors to help reflect the light indoors.
Another treatment – and perhaps a less obvious one – advised by Pavlovich is to take up a new hobby to “keep your mind active” during the winter months. “The important thing is that you have something to look forward to and concentrate on,” she told NHS Inform.
We all complain about losing our mojo on dark and dreary days, and it’s not uncommon to feel lethargic during the colder seasons. But if you suspect something more serious is going on, and these symptoms of SAD resonate, contact your doctor.
For more information, visit mind.org.uk
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