It’s that time of year, of darker nights and shorter days. Some people's moods can take a hit, for others this hit is more serious and is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD is a type of depression related to changes in seasons — It begins and ends at about the same times every year. Most people with SAD start to feel symptoms in the autumn, then all through the winter, sapping energy and making them feel moody.
Around 2-10% of Europeans and North Americans are affected by SAD, with 75 percent being women, although both genders are affected equally in older age. 60% of people who suffer from SAD get it to varying degrees every winter, an awful lot of months feeling gloomy.
As there is crossover between SAD and other forms of depression, it is always wise to discuss any feelings of low mood with your GP.
What causes SAD?
Factors may include:
Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in autumn and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
Seasonal affective disorder is diagnosed more often in women than in men. It occurs more frequently in younger adults.
Family history. People with SAD may be more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.
Having major depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally.
Living far from the equator. SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months.
SAD is caused by lack of light and people with SAD need much more light to function normally than others do. So it is not surprising that the main treatment for SAD is bright light.
It has been proven to be effective in up to 85% of people diagnosed with SAD.
The user sits in front of a lightbox so that bright light enters the eyes. Light treatment has to be used every day in winter to enable people with SAD to lead a normal life. When treatment starts, it usually takes three to four days to work.
The effect wears off if it is not used for three - four days. Treatment should start in early autumn, before symptoms start, and continue till spring. It can also be used on dull, cloudy days in summer.
As light levels in Ireland are very changeable, some people can be affected by a prolonged downturn in the weather. The worst time is inevitably midwinter, but a wet June can sometimes be worse than a sunny February, so be adaptable.
Light therapy is one the mainstays of treatment.
If you cannot access light therapy, make your days as bright as possible – work next to a window, put lamps on at home, and get outdoors.
Beware: people with macular degeneration, retinal disease or photosensitive skin conditions or medications should not use light therapy. Ask your doctor.
Drug treatments can be in used in combination with light therapy, or be used alone, particularly useful for those people who do not respond to light treatment. All drug treatments are prescribed by your GP.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
The therapy space allows people to talk about the impact of SAD and can assist people with SAD to make positive, constructive changes to their winter daily routines.
It may help them to feel better about the fact that they need to adapt to winter rather than attempt to carry on regardless. They may begin to feel less guilty or frustrated if things are not the same as they are at other times of the year.
Finally Embrace ‘Hygge’
Learning Hygge pronounced “hooga” from Scandinavian countries where they barely see daylight for weeks. SAD is therefore a significant problem, but they tackle this through embracing the concept of ‘Hygge’. In essence, hygge means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with family and friends. Sometimes rather than resisting its easier to go with the flow, go with the winter, the lights, fires, wrapping up warm, dinner with friends.
Do You have SAD?
Low mood, feelings of hopelessness, avoiding social events, irritability and loss of enjoyment. YES NO
Oversleeping, extreme tiredness and napping, or indeed insomnia or sleep disturbances. YES NO
Appetite changes: Overeating is common, particularly a craving for carbs or sugary foods. You may put on weight over winter. Some people may however lose appetite. YES NO
Trouble focusing, forgetting things, difficulty finishing tasks. YES NO
Low energy, muscle tension or pain, decreased sexual drive, stomach and headaches, a sensation that your body is heavier or harder to move around, sluggish. YES NO