Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression which has a seasonal pattern, most commonly experienced during the winter months. The symptoms experienced are much the same as with depression. Typically, these symptoms will lift when the spring arrives.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that people experience at a particular time of year or during a particular season.

Most of us are affected by the change in seasons – it is normal to feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer, or to find that you eat more or sleep longer in winter.  In Shetland sometimes the dark winter nights can really make the days seem really long and bereft of daylight.

However, if you experience SAD, the change in seasons will have a much greater effect on your mood and energy levels, and lead to symptoms of depression that have a significant impact on your day-to-day life.  Most people experience SAD during the winter.  Less commonly, some people find that they experience SAD in reverse – with depressive symptoms occurring in summer.

Symptoms can include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Inadequacy
  • Anxiety
  • Self hatred
  • Negativity
  • An inability to enjoy things which were once pleasurable
  • Guilt
  • Agitation
  • Weight gain/loss
  • Loss of energy or motivation
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Poor concentration, indecisiveness
  • Irritability, anger
  • Social withdrawal
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Self harm
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide

Some people get ‘sub-syndromal SAD’ which is a milder version in which people may put on weight, feel tired and low but do not develop a full depression. This is sometimes known as the ‘winter blues.’

The exact cause of SAD is unknown however some theories suggest that the lack of natural light during the winter can be a contributing factor. One option for treating SAD is to use a light box. This is a special type of light which gives off much brighter UV light than a normal lamp.

Other options for treating SAD are much the same as treating depression and can include medication or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  A GP would be able to diagnose whether somebody is experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder and could advise on the best course of treatment for that person.  If you are concerned that you are experiencing SAD then please make an appointment with your GP int he first instance.

We have detailed some self-help tips below:

  • Make the most of natural light - being outdoors doesn't cure SAD but it's still worth taking opportunities to be exposed to natural light when possible. Going outdoors, particularly around midday or on bright days, can be effective in reducing symptoms. It might help to try to wear sunglasses a bit less often to allow greater exposure to natural light (only if it is safe and comfortable to do so). Having pale colours within the home that reflect light from outside can also be helpful.
  • Avoid stress - If you find this time of year difficult, try to plan ahead to reduce the amount of stressful or difficult activities you have during this time. Plan stressful events for summer where possible, particularly major ones, such as changing jobs, moving home, doing decorating or repairs or having a baby.
  • Exercise and eat well - Try to keep physically active during the winter.  While you may not feel like it at the time, physical activity can be very effective in lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels.  It doesn’t have to be anything particularly strenuous – doing housework, gardening or going for a gentle walk can all help.  A healthy diet is also important, and you should try to balance the common SAD craving for carbohydrates, such as pasta and potatoes, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Some people find that taking extra vitamin B12 is helpful.
  • Visit somewhere with more light - If you can afford it, a holiday to a sunnier climate is likely to reduce symptoms, but you may find that on returning to the UK your SAD will temporarily become much worse. It seems that the contrast in light levels can do more harm than good sometimes, so check with your doctor  before going away if you have any doubts.
  • Consider using a light box - Using a light box has been found to be an effective treatment for SAD, as it increases your exposure to light during the winter months. People benefit from using a light box in different ways. Many people find that it is useful to use one every day, but it is best to experiment to find a routine that works for you. The average use is one or two hours a day during darker months and the maximum is about four hours.  Some light boxes are much brighter and can cut treatment time down to half an hour. You can use your lights at any time of day, although it’s best not to use it before you go to bed, as the effect of the light may make it hard to sleep. 
  • Visit our wellbeing section for more tips.

Mind Your Head have a light box which is available to borrow for a period of one week for people to trial before exploring options to rent or buy.  If you are interested in borrowing the light box then please contact us.  We can also provide information on where you can rent lightboxes or purchase natural alarm clocks (there is also a link provided in support sources below).

If you experience Seasonal Affective Disorder and would like to help us improve understanding of this type of depression then please contact us to say you would like to share why mental health matters to you.

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