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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): What Is It? What Are The Symptoms? And So Much More

Seasonal affective disorder is a depression type that rears its head and settles down again as the seasons change. Often known as “winter depression”, the symptoms typically appear during the colder, darker months, and diminish throughout the spring and summer. In rare cases, people experience severe symptoms in summer.


So, as March is coming to an end, many SAD sufferers will start to experience a decrease in the not-very-fun feelings. With that said, we’ll go over the mental health condition in more detail below for those who may still be in the midst of it as the season tries to figure out whether or not we’re entering sunnier times!


Disclaimer: never use anything you find on Google to self-diagnose or self-treat! If you’re struggling, speak to your doctor. They’ll advise you as to the right course of action. This is just a birds-eye view of seasonal affective disorder, its symptoms, causes, and related information.


A fern leaf with half in autumn and half in summer laying on a bed of almost mulched leaves of all kinds

Let’s Look at the Stats and Facts


We’re luckily living in a world where extensive research has been conducted on SAD, which shows us who’s most at risk, the months which see the most cases, and loads more. With that in mind, look at these stats and facts:


· In the UK, more than 1 in 20 people have been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

· Over 11% of people living in London are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD compared to people living anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

· More than 1/3 of people aged 16 either have the condition or believe they have it. While only 3.15% of individuals aged 55 and over have been diagnosed.


The Symptoms of SAD


Even though SAD is a mental health condition, it affects the body and the mind (as many mental concerns do!). Below you can find some of the common symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder.


The Physical Symptoms


· Having problems with sleep

· Having low energy

· Overeating and weight gain or poor appetite and weight loss

· Changes in appetite

· Craving carbs

· Restlessness

· Insomnia


The Mental Symptoms


· Feeling agitated, worthless, or hopeless

· Feeling depressed for most of the day, pretty much every day

· Losing interest in activities you used to love

· Having trouble concentrating

· Thinking about death or suicide

· Feeling as though you want to hibernate (i.e., socially withdrawing)

· Displaying episodes of violence

· Experiencing anxiety


When Should You Go To a Doctor For Your Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms?


If you believe you might have SAD and you’re struggling to cope with the symptoms, you should speak to your general practitioner. They can assess your mental health and provide appropriate treatment avenues. Usually, they’ll ask questions about your mood, eating habits, sleeping patterns, lifestyle, and changes in your behaviour throughout the seasons.


What Causes SAD?


Despite the research conducted into SAD, the exact causes aren’t completely understood. It appears that the factors often causing general depression can lead to seasonal affective disorder.


That said, the results from various studies show several potential causes. A combination of the four factors below could be causing your SAD:


#1 Production of Serotonin


Serotonin, as we’re sure you know, is a type of neurotransmitter that impacts your mood, sleep, and appetite. Made from the essential amino acid, tryptophan, it’s a naturally occurring mood stabilizer, often dubbed the “happy chemical.”


With normal serotonin levels, you feel calmer, happier, more emotionally stable, less anxious, and more focused. However, the darker months can cause slower serotonin production, which is associated with feelings of depression.


#2 Production of Melatonin


Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally found in your body, controlling your sleep patterns.

Darkness triggers extra melatonin production, causing you to feel tired. If you have trouble falling asleep, you may have lower levels of this hormone than others.


Conversely, the winter months puts production into overdrive, causing excessive sluggishness in those with SAD.


#3 Changes In Your Circadian Rhythm


At the end of the day, we’re all animals. And just like our furry (feathered, scaled, etc.) friends, our bodies use sunlight to trigger functions like your sleep and wake cycle.


Therefore, when winter rolls around, the lower light levels can throw your body clock off and cause symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.


#4 Lack of Sunlight Exposure


The above reasons have one major thing in common — the lack of sunlight. When there isn’t enough light, your appetite, sleep, temperature, mood, sex drive, and activity levels slow down. Sometimes, they can even stop altogether.


Since everybody is different, some people require more sunlight exposure than others. It’s often these people who experience SAD during winter. But if you experience the condition in the summer, you tend to find bright light and harsh sunshine too much to handle.


#5 Weather and Temperature Changes


Following on from light exposure, we get temperate. Again, everybody is different. Some people thrive in hot temperatures whereas others are at their best in cold climates. When the season doesn’t coincide with your preference, you could develop SAD or any existing depression could worsen.


How You Can Help Make Living With SAD Easier?


Mind, a mental health charity founded in 1946 that is very close to our hearts, details some great tips to help make living with SAD easier in their Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) publication. We highly recommend reading the document for complete insight into the things you can do help yourself. But we’ll give you a few of their tips and tricks here that’ve specifically helped us:


· Start a diary — Yep, perhaps one of the most clichéd pieces of advice when talking about mental health, but it works. Noting down the weather and your activity alongside your symptoms can help you determine whether there’s a pattern to your feelings. We suggest Daylio for this. It’s an extremely easy-to-use journal and mood tracker app. There is a paid version, but we’ve been using the free version for exactly 591 days (and yes, we use it every single day)!

· Get outside — Spending time in nature allows you to feel more in touch with your surroundings and yourself. Mind’s info piece on Nature and Mental Health details the specific benefits and even provides activity suggestions to make getting outside even easier.

· Balanced eating — Fitness fanatics weren’t lying; it really is a lifestyle change, not a diet (as annoying as that sounds). Eating regularly, thus stabilising your blood sugar levels, can positively impact your energy and mood levels.

· Keep up with your personal hygiene — When experiencing depression, it’s so easy to put hygiene on the bottom of your priority list. Whether it’s brushing your teeth, washing your hair, having a shower, or getting dressed, it can all feel just a bit much. But try to do at least one of those things a day, you’ll be surprised by the affect it has on how you’re feeling.


What Treatments Can Help Seasonal Affective Disorder?


If you’ve implemented a few of the tips but you’re still feeling lost under your SAD, you can always ask for help. You don’t need to wait to see if there’s a seasonal pattern.


Firstly, head to your GP (as we mentioned earlier). As per the NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines, you should be offered the same treatment avenues for SAD as other forms of depression. The treatments suggested may be one or more of the following:


Talking Therapies


There are numerous talking therapies that are effective at treating depression. You can access them through the NHS or privately, depending on your situation.


Medication


Sometimes, you may be prescribed an antidepressant. Usually, it’s provided in combination with a talking therapy.


Antidepressants are typically SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) which boost the production or prolong creation of certain brain chemicals. Specifically, serotonin and noradrenaline, which are neurotransmitters. In other words, they pass messages between the nerve cells inside your brain and the rest of your body.


Those who take antidepressants often experience a lift in their mood after a while. But they don’t work for everybody.


Light Therapy


The NHS doesn’t offer light therapy due to the insufficient evidence surrounding its effectiveness. However, some people with SAD find it helpful.


It involves using a light box — a gadget that emits a strong blue or white light — to simulate sunshine. If you decide to try it, discussing it with your doctor is wise, especially as it isn’t suitable for anybody taking St John’s wort.


Art and Creative Therapies


Another alternative treatment method is art and creative therapies. You don’t need any skill or experience in your chosen outlet — it simply provides a place for you to express yourself without judgment. There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s simply about enjoyment and immersing yourself in the moment.


Ecotherapy


Finally, ecotherapy is a formal therapeutic treatment that includes outdoor activities. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition, it’s generally used to describe a structured, regular session that:


· occurs in a green space.

· focuses on an activity, rather than health.

· lets you explore and appreciate nature.

· involves spending time with others.

· is led by trained professionals.


SAD: Getting Help Might Be Difficult, But It’s Worth It


Whatever you’re struggling with, and whenever you’re struggling with it, your feelings are valid, and somebody will listen and give you the help you deserve (because you do deserve it).


So, with that in mind, we’ll leave you with some helpful contacts who are always there for you:


· Mind Side by SideAn online community for those experiencing mental health problems.

· CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably)Open from 5pm to midnight, it gives listening and web chat services for men at risk of suicide. Call 0800 58 58 58 or click here for their web chat.

· Local Minds — There are more than 140 local Minds across England and Wales offering all kinds of services. Finding your closest service is easy with the Local Minds Finder.

· Depression UKIt’s a national self-help organisation for people with depression.

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