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Seasonal Affective Disorder

So this week the clock go back and the lucky ones amongst us may enjoy an extra hour in bed.

For some of us though, this time of year marks a time of dread, anxiety and perhaps even utterly debilitating levels of depression… or what is otherwise referred to as… ‘winter blues’.

That’s because for some people, the change in daylight hours marks the start of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is known as S.A.D and is called so because of the symptoms of such Mood Disorder are much more prominent and severe during the dark, cold winter months and tend to ease during the start of Spring as the weather brightens and warms (typically from October to March).

Many people with SAD report their patterns as repeating every winter and easing or completely disappearing during the summer time.

Symptoms can be mild and many people notice they feel a little more fatigued during the cold winter months. They may start to lose interest in things they would otherwise enjoy.

You may find you crave more sweet foods, or stodgy carbohydrates. You may feel like you need more sleep, or find your sleep is disrupted. General symptoms of depression can set in; feeling low in mood, tearful, have a sense of worthlessness or hopelessness.

Sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder can be severely debilitated by their symptoms and find it impossible to continue with their normal routine or to work. It can be incredibly upsetting and feelings of depression and upset are only further exasperated by feeling misunderstood by friends, colleagues or family.

Whatever the severity of Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are a number of things you could try that may help ease these symptoms and help manage this for the winter. Acting early can be key.

What are the Symptoms of SAD?

Symptoms vary in severity; mild to moderate or severe. They include:

  • low mood

  • tearfulness

  • difficulty concentrating

  • sense of hopelessness or worthlessness

  • increase in anxiety / panic attacks

  • loss of interest in otherwise enjoyable activities, such as seeing friends, social activities, hobbies, exercise, etc.

  • feelings of guilt and shame

  • lack of energy

  • craving sugars and refined carbohydrates / overeating

  • increase in weight

  • change in sex drive / loss of interest

  • cravings for stimulants like caffeine, sugars, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, etc.

  • changes in sleeping habits; needing more sleep, struggling to get out of bed in the morning, disruptions in usual sleeping pattern.

What causes SAD?

Any exact specific single cause of SAD has not been fully understood however there are a number of factors indicated.

One key explanation is simply the change in the lack of sunlight hours which affects the hypothalamus (a part of the brain relating to the pituitary gland, nervous system and regulation of hormones). The change in sunlight hours also affects the body and brains natural, innate inner Circadian Rhythm and this affects how we feel in many ways. It can impact our energy levels, our mood, our sleep quality, sex drive and temperature. This change also influences a number of biochemical processes including production of melatonin (a sleep hormone) and serotonin (a neurotransmitter affecting sleep, mood and energy).

Many people in the UK report experiencing early symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder from September or October, with a worsening as the clocks go back… that continues until the Spring. Often when the clocks move forward again, there is a fairly sudden improvement and ‘lift’ in symptoms.

What can I do to help myself?

There are a number of things to consider if you are aware Seasonal Blues affects you:

  • Act early. Now is the time to set up a regular routine of sleeping, eating, activities and self-care. Discipline is key.

  • Set an alarm. Try to keep your sleep - bedtimes and wake up times - on schedule.

  • Light box therapy. Many people report some relief by using specialist Seasonal Affective Disorder light boxes of blue or white light for some time each morning. Best benefits are found from starting early into the daylight hours change and using this upon waking in the mornings.

  • Eat well. Despite cravings, if you are troubled by seasonal blues, now will be the time to curb sugar and caffeine intake and instead aim for a very varied diet of plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit, protein and complex (slow-release carbohydrates).

  • Ensuring you have adequate vitamin and mineral intake could help support optimal functioning of biochemical processes. A good multi-vitamin may help.

  • As with any hormone-related issue, drinking plenty of water each day can help.

  • Supplement with Vitamin D. Many studies suggest that Vitamin D (mostly absorbed by sunlight and certain foods) plays a vital role in the healthy function of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. By supplementing with this during the dark months, you may be able to sustain a more normal functioning of this.

  • Try and stay active. Although there may be times when you feel lethargic and not wanting to do much… many people report they feel better by doing some gentle exercise. Again, to try and maximise exposure to Vitamin D, a gentle walk outside is recommended… Try to make the most out of the natural day light hours. It doesn’t have to be a warm sunny day for this to make a difference.

  • Yoga and meditation can be a great way to feel more balanced, relaxed and energised as well as helping to manage stress..

  • Try to plan a winter-sun holiday! Practically, planning for some regular trips to a sunnier climate can make a huge difference and really break up the intensity of the winter blues. Even just a weekend break a few times throughout the darkest months can help ease symptoms.

  • Stress-management techniques can also be helpful for symptoms of SAD. Find what works best for you.

  • Counselling or CBT. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is recommended to help understand the link between your thinking, your feelings and your actions. More importantly, this approach specific to SAD can help you work on activity scheduling and managing difficult feelings associated with this time of the year.

  • Maintaining enjoyable hobbies and interests. The start of the Autumn/Winter season is especially a good idea to join some groups or clubs and aim to keep with the habit of maintaining some regular activities to help you get through the dark months.

  • Spending quality time with friends & family. Picking up the phone or trying to make regular times to keep in touch or see friends or family is always a good fundamental for positive mental health, but the winter months can be an especially important time for this.

  • Joining a support group can also be helpful.

  • Medical intervention. If your symptoms are very debilitating and you find the above pointers do not help, or you feel concerned about your health or the emotional impact of Seasonal Affective Disorder, it may be a good idea to contact your GP and discuss options for medication.

  • Finally, remember self-compassion. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real and recognised condition. Many people suffer terribly with this. Beating yourself up about it or wishing it away won’t help. Be gentle to yourself and/or others suffering with this. Small steps can help.

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