The darker nights, colder weather and rainier forecasts makes a gloomier outlook pretty much an inevitability. It’s that time of year. However, how can you tell when it crosses the line from a dip in mood to a mental health issue?
Seasonal affective disorder, or ‘SAD,’ affects more people than most think with its presence being felt most prevalently in the winter months. So how can you spot the signs? We asked Psychologist and Get The Gloss Expert Elaine Slater for her advice on prevention, diagnosis and treatment to help better manage its symptoms, signals and side-effects.
What is SAD?
“Seasonal affective disorder is a significant mental health issue,” says Elaine. “It is classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM5) as a mood disorder. It is a mood disorder in which individuals who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience ‘seasonal depression.’”
Does it only occur in the winter? Unfortunately, not. “SAD primarily occurs during December, January and February but symptoms can start between September and November and continue until March, April or even May,” says Elaine.
“SAD affects around half a million people in the UK and is caused by a biochemical imbalance in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus which controls mood, appetite and sleep,” she explains. “This is thought to be induced by the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter. You are more likely to experience SAD if you live in a country where there are significant changes to daylight, temperature and weather between seasons.”
What are the symptoms?
“There are many different symptoms of SAD and they can vary between sufferers,” says Elaine. “If symptoms persist for three consecutive years, you are likely to receive a diagnosis of SAD.” According to Elaine, the following are the most common symptoms of the condition:
- Feeling sad, low, tearful or depressed for most of the day
- Feeling hopeless and despairing
- Sleep problems, oversleeping or insomnia
- Mood swings and irritability
- Anxiety and difficulty concentrating
- Guilt and loss of self-esteem
- Overeating – in particular, craving carbohydrates to boost mood
- Weakened immune system – being more prone to illness during the winter months
- Loss of libido
- Lethargy and apathy
What can you do if you think you have it?
Although far-reaching in its effects, it is possible to manage the condition on a day to day basis by making some small but effective alterations to your routine. Cumulatively, they can make a noticeable difference. “Many individuals with SAD recognise that their symptoms are seasonal and develop self-help strategies that allow them to manage the condition themselves,” explains Elaine. Here are her top tips:
1. Make the most of natural light: “Use any opportunity to be exposed to natural light when possible, in particular during your lunch hour at work.”
2. Exercise and try to keep moving: “It doesn’t have to be anything particularly strenuous. Physical activity increases energy levels and lifts our mood. Doing something physical in the outdoors, in a green space, can be especially helpful.”
3. Eat well: “Manage the SAD cravings for carbohydrates with a balanced healthy diet.”
4. Avoid and manage stress where possible: “If you can, try to create more spare time to mindfully rest, relax and unwind.”
What are the next, more intensive, forms of treatment?
“If you find that you cannot manage your symptoms yourself, or if they are beginning to have a detrimental impact on your daily life, you might find it helpful to talk to your GP,” advises Elaine. “They will be able to discuss treatment options if needed. The following are typical treatment options:”
1. Talking therapy: “Talking therapy can be extremely useful in helping individuals cope with SAD symptoms,” says Elaine. These can encompass counselling, psychotherapies, cognitive behavioural therapy (more commonly known as CBT) and talking treatments involving the help of a trained professional. The idea behind them is to help people to better deal with their negative feelings, explore their moods and gain an insight on where these behaviours originated from, without fear of judgement.
2. Antidepressant medication: “Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been shown to be effective in treating severe cases of SAD,” says Elaine.
3. Light therapy: “This is an effective treatment for around 80% of people,” Elaine adds.
Is there a proven mode of prevention?
“There is no known method or approach to prevent the development of SAD,” says Elaine. “However, if you take steps early on to manage your symptoms, you may be able to prevent them from worsening over time.”