Seasonal Affective Disorder is a particular type of depression that is linked to the changing seasons. The problem typically arises in the winter months, though some people will be affected in the summer. The issue only arises at a particular time of the year, so if you are experiencing problems year-round, it suggests another type of depression is to blame and you should seek the advice of your doctor.
Symptoms of SAD include:
Changing sleep patterns – for example, finding it harder to get to sleep and then sleeping for longer.
Irregular eating habits
Lack of interest in the things you enjoy
Reduced activity levels
What causes SAD in winter?
It's not exactly clear what causes SAD, though the darker days and nights that we find ourselves in during winter could play a part. This disrupts the body's circadian rhythm, which controls our sleep pattern, and increases levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. On top of this, there may be a reduction in serotonin levels. This is a chemical in the body that contributes to positive emotions. So, altogether this may lead to the kind of symptoms listed above.
Reasons for worsening symptoms
Recent times have been challenging for everyone, but even more so if you suffer from a depressive disorder like SAD.
For one, spending less time outdoors and more time in the confines of our homes means the body is exposed to less natural daylight than ever before. If you are working from home, a whole day can easily pass where the body is exposed to no natural light. This will play havoc with the circadian rhythm and disrupt sleep at night. It's also likely to play a part in increasing low mood, particularly if you aren't getting a lot of movement indoors.
Also, many people are already feeling stressed by restrictions and health concerns, therefore, having SAD on top of this can make symptoms worse than in previous times.
On top of this, recently there has been much less opportunity to socialise and more people face isolation instead. Again, this stress only adds to the already challenging symptoms people face when suffering from SAD.
My self-care tip: Support mood with vitamin D
Find out about the link between vitamin D and mood, plus learn how much vitamin D you should be taking during the winter months to keep up healthy levels.
What can you do about SAD this year?
If your SAD is feeling more severe this year, there are a few things you could try.
Avoid turning to sugary snacks
When we are feeling low or stressed, we often turn to sugary snacks like cakes and biscuits for a bit of comfort. However, foods that are high in sugar can play havoc with our energy levels and mood. Whilst they might provide an initial lift, this isn't sustained and is quickly followed by a drop in mood and energy.
So, see if you can find a bit of pleasure in picking out new foods to try or simply opt for your favourite healthy options – perhaps a bag of nuts and seeds, for example, or a fruit salad mixed in natural yogurt.
There are also a few foods that boost serotonin levels naturally. We know that higher serotonin levels are linked to better mood so you might want to think about adding a few of these to your diet.1 Corn, oats, fruit and vegetables are just a few examples.
Get outside as much as possible
Being outside is crucial for supporting our mood. It's good for our serotonin levels – those mood-lifting chemicals – and is a nice way to unwind and relax too. If you can get a little movement into your time outdoors, this will release endorphins which are also really good for our mood.
So, how can you get out more?
Have short stretching breaks in your garden a few times a day. Watch our Get Active video below for guidance on the kind of movements you could do
Stroll to the shops or around any nearby green space during your lunch break
Get busy in the garden
Have a picnic
Try an outdoor activity such as cycling or golf
When the weather's bright, pop on a fleece and BBQ outdoors
Walk a new route at the weekend – explore your local park in a different direction or find a route you don't normally go on.
As our ability to form new social connections and sustain existing ones is a little more challenging this year, we have to be more pro-active in terms of staying social. This is really important to avoid feelings of isolation and loneliness.
So, schedule regular meet-ups with friends and family, even if this is just once a month via video apps like Zoom or Whatsapp. Why not put an afternoon aside and agree with the person/people on the other side to get on with other things as you chat? It's a great opportunity to tick things off your 'to-do' list whilst also being social!
If you are fed up with these kinds of interactions (I know I am!), why not resort back to an old-fashioned telephone call?
Where guidelines allow, you could also begin to meet others for a spot of outdoor activity – maybe take a walk about town or get the blankets out and have a hot chocolate outdoors. Just because the weather is colder, it doesn't mean we have to stay cocooned indoors! In fact, being outdoors for a while just makes it all the more pleasant to return to the comforts of central heating!
Relax before bed
If your sleep patterns are all over the place, try a bit of relaxation before bed to help you drift off. First off, avoid using any technology in the hour before bed, as the lights emitted from these things disrupt the circadian rhythm. Next, avoid stimulants like caffeine in the second half of the day. A herbal tea such as lemon and ginger or chamomile makes a comforting alternative. Finally, try some relaxing activities before you sleep – maybe a little controlled breathing, some knitting or drawing or a spot of bedtime Yoga.
Lockdown, social distancing, working from home and the closure of public facilities has thrown all our routines up in the air this year. If this has left you with feelings of stress and anxiety, it might be a good idea to create a new routine to exert some control over the situation.
And this new routine doesn't need to involve anything too complicated:
Get up and go to bed at the same time every day
Pop a bit of regular exercise into your week
Eat three meals a day
Snack at the same time each day (choosing healthy options as much as possible!)
Plan social meet-ups, online or otherwise, so that there is something to look forward to.
Speak to your doctor
Lastly, it is a good idea to talk through your symptoms with your doctor. Many clinics will offer phone consultations if you aren't able to meet in person. Also, there are many charity helplines available. I would really suggest talking to a trained expert provided by one of these charities, however, you may find it helpful to check out the resources and tips on their website as well. I have put links to a few UK charities that may be useful below: