Understanding and Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) was not recognised until the 1980’s when researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in the USA developed an outline diagnostic criteria for what had previously been called ‘winter depression’ 1, taking into consideration the symptoms are usually more apparent and more severe during the autumn and winter months. 

Primarily SAD occurs in the months between September and November, and in some cases it can continue into March or April, research shows that it is usually more common in women1.

It is not understood why women are more impacted by SAD. It is however suggested that a lack of sunlight, cortisol, thyroid hormones and lower levels of serotonin are all contributing factors that suggest why people suffer. The sun provides us with vitamin D, and with a decrease in sunlight during the darker months this may disrupt your body’s internal clock. Taking supplements could offer a way to increase vitamin D levels. The brain chemical serotonin (neurotransmitter and linked to depression) is known to effect mood, also playing a role in the development of SAD.

Further, evidence points out that physical symptoms are more profound than psychological, it is thought to reflect physiological responses to the environments as apposed to being triggered by emotional pain. Symptoms we can look out for in our family, friends or work colleagues are, the need to sleep longer, fatigue, cravings for carbohydrates and sweet foods, and marked mood swings1

The cost of living this year will have a direct impact on footfall in shopping centres in the lead up to Christmas3, with purse strings being pulled tighter in comparison to last year, it really does pose potential challenges to people going out in social settings and getting the body moving and having critical access to sunlight.

Accessing Support 

If the above is a concern to you, talking about your feelings can be a good start, if you feel you are unsupported in your environment or live alone, Samaritans –  are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to provide a safe space for you to talk about anything that’s worrying you. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone), or if you find it better to email you can email jo@samaritans.org or visit some branches in person. You can also call the Welsh Language Line on 0300 123 3011 (7pm–11pm every day).  If you prefer to communicate with Text you can message to SHOUT 85258. 

Writing a diary 

Keeping track of our feelings and identifying the triggers can help a person to support and manage patterns. Writing down what is unhelpful and worsening the situation can help us remember and support if we get to the stage where we need to see a GP, or counsellor.

Winter Sunlight

Regular sun exposure is the most natural way to get enough vitamin D. This helps us to maintain healthy blood levels, it is suggested that humans should aim to get 10–30 minutes of midday sunlight4, several times per week. People with darker skin may need a little more than this. So when the sun is out – get out for a brew in the garden or a walk, exposure to green space can aid physical and mental health.

Explore Peer Support Groups

Peer support can be a platform to bring together people who have had similar experiences. Some people can find this very helpful.

To find peer support, you could:

Always remember that it is normal to have some days when you feel down or blue. However, if you are feeling down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, you should consider seeing your GP or health care provider. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide. 

Reference list 

  1. Beating Stress, Anxiety & Depression. (2008) Professor Jane Plant and Janet Stephenson. London 
  2. www.healthline.com/health/himalayan-salt-lamps
  3. https://www.retailgazette.co.uk/blog/2022/09/footfall-set-to-plummet-in-run-up-to-christmas/
  4. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-d-from-sun#overview
  5. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/self-care/#TryPeerSupport

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