This is my friend’s dog, Bodi. She’s only young but it looks like she’s already exploring ways to stave off the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). As we start to move further into autumn, I too am aware that I’ll probably start to feel much less motivation and energy as I would during the spring and summer, a pattern in myself that I’ve noticed over the recent years.
SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern, with symptoms usually more apparent and severe in the winter. We don’t know the exact causes of SAD but it seems to be associated with reduced sunlight, the theory being that the lack of sunlight in the winter months may affect functioning of a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. This in turn may affect:
- the production of melatonin, our ‘sleep hormone’. Melatonin is a central part of our body’s sleep-wake cycle, its production increases with evening darkness, and so helps promote healthy sleep, and is reduced during daylight hours. In people with SAD the body may produce melatonin in higher than normal levels.
- the production of serotonin, a hormone that can affect our mood, appetite and sleep. Lack of sunlight can lead to lower levels of serotonin which may be one of the mechanisms of the feelings of depression.
- our body’s internal clock, it’s ‘circadian rhythms’. Circadian rhythms are 24 hour cycles of natural physical, mental and behavioural changes, they signal the body when to sleep, wake and eat. They are controlled by the hypothalamus and are influenced by environmental cues, especially light, which is why they are aligned to cycles of day and night.
It looks like SAD may also have a genetic component as some cases of SAD appear to run in families.
Symptoms of SAD may include:
- Persistent low mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
- Not wanting to see other people
- Feelings of sadness, guilt, hopelessness
- Feeling irritable, being more tearful
- Low energy, possible daytime sleepiness or napping
- Sleeping for longer and finding it hard to get up in the morning
- Craving carbs and increased weight
There are different options to treat symptoms of SAD. There are lifestyle measures that we can take - to try and get as much natural sunlight as possible, exercise regularly, try to eat a healthy diet and take measures to manage our stress levels. We can access talking therapies like CBT to help us if we need support in making these changes or talk them through with our GP. You can discuss anti-depressant medication with your GP if your depression symptoms are having a significant impact on your life. And of course, you can do what Bodi’s doing and try light therapy which some people find helpful. Like her you can use a light box which is a particular kind of lamp that gives off a strong white or blue light. This is also something you can talk to your GP about.
I find it’s always useful to hear the experience of others when trying to understand particular difficulties. The Mind website is a great resource for this, they have pulled together loads of useful information about SAD alongside first-hand accounts from others who are impacted by it and how they manage the impacts of SAD.
If you are struggling with SAD and think CBT may be helpful, please do feel free to get in touch and together we can explore this further.