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SAD: How to deal with seasonal affective disorder

November 11, 2019

Many of us get a touch of the blues when autumn starts to turn into winter. We might feel like hibernating when the clocks change, or the colder and wetter weather could cause our mood to drop. These symptoms are more severe for some people than others – and this is what we call Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

According to Mind, SAD is “a type of depression that you experience during particular seasons or times of year”. The way people experience it is very individual, however. It can have some of the same symptoms as ‘classic’ depression, but these are temporary and lift as the season changes.

If you experience SAD you might be more likely to feel generally sluggish in the autumn and winter months, or find it hard to get out of bed in the morning. It’s also common to want to stay indoors, and be much less motivated to get out and do things.

The exact cause of SAD isn’t crystal clear, but there is potentially a biological link between the change of season and the way some of us feel: it’s more common among people who live far away from the Equator than those who live closer.

Thanks to modern life, human beings are out of sync with the natural rhythms of our environment. In the winter, many of us leave the house in the dark to go to work, spend the day in an artificially lit office, and then come home again in the dark. This means we can go days without getting any natural daylight, which can cause problems with our energy levels and sleep, for example – not to mention our frame of mind.

Developing SAD could also be rooted in ‘nurture’ as well as ‘nature’. If we had a parent who dreaded the onset of winter, for example, or who believed it was going to be a bad day whenever it rained, this could have had an impact on our behaviour.

Short of moving to another hemisphere, there’s not much we can do to avoid the triggers for SAD! But there are things we can do to ease the symptoms, and help ourselves to feel better until spring comes around again.

Some people find that buying a light box or lamp and sitting by it for a period of time each day is effective. It’s not recommended for people who have certain conditions or who are taking certain medications, including the herbal medication St John’s Wort, and it can cause side effects so please talk to your GP first.

A dawn simulator alarm clock can help too. This wakes you up gradually with slowly increasing ‘daylight’, and the more natural awakening can give people more energy and a better mood.

It’s also a good idea to get outside into the daylight whenever you can – even if it’s just for 15 minutes during your lunch break.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends the use of talking treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for SAD. CBT treats SAD in a similar way to depression, with techniques and coping tools that are tailored to address someone’s specific individual symptoms. These might include:

Understanding the ‘vicious cycle’.

If you’re less interested in doing things in winter you might stay in, watch more TV and eat more instead. As a result, you’re likely to get more tired and have less energy – and your mood will drop. So you’ll feel less interested in doing things…you get the idea! By recognising and exploring the feelings, thoughts and behaviours that are associated with SAD, you’ll be better able to break the cycle.

Schedule activities to make the most of the daylight.

Think about the things you need and want to do during the week – walking the dog, going to the gym, spending time with the family – and put them in your diary, swapping them around where possible to ensure you get outside during the day. Scheduling activities in will also make it more likely you’ll stick to them!

Challenge your thoughts.

If you’re reluctant to go out during dark evenings, for example, ask yourself why. What would happen if you did; would you still enjoy that yoga class or dinner with friends? Put it to the test – go out, then examine how you feel when you return home. Many people feel buoyed up, and realise they don’t need to be anxious.

There can be waiting lists for some types of therapy, so if you know you experience SAD and want some support you should speak to your GP early about getting referred. Another option is online CBT – there’s no waiting list, so people can start therapy right away. Find out more about what can be treated with online CBT or what to expect during online therapy.

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