Seasonal Affective Disorder

Rainy Day

Also known as SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, according to mental health charity Mind, is ‘is a form of depression that people experience at a particular time of year or during a particular season.’

Most of us feel a little more vibrant when the sun is out and our days feel longer because of the extended hours of daylight. In the winter we have darker mornings, long nights and we may find we sleep longer because of this. However, true Seasonal Affective Disorder will have a greater effect on your mood and energy levels.

Mind list the symptoms of SAD as the following: 

  • lack of energy for everyday tasks and problems with concentration
  • sleep problems– such as sleeping for longer than usual or not being able to get to sleep
  • depression– feeling sad, low, tearful, guilty, like you have let others or yourself down; sometimes feeling hopeless and despairing, sometimes apathetic and feeling nothing
  • anxiety– tenseness and inability to cope with everyday stresses
  • panic attacks
  • mood changes – in some people, bursts of hyperactivity and cheerfulness (known ashypomania) in spring and autumn
  • overeating – particularly 'comfort eating' or snacking more than usual
  • being more prone to illness – some people with SAD may have a lowered immune system during the winter, and may be more likely to get colds, infections and other illnesses
  • loss of interest in sex or physical contact
  • social and relationship problems – irritability or not wanting to see people; difficult or abusive behaviour
  • greater drug or alcohol use

 What causes SAD?

There is no distinguished cause for Seasonal Affective Disorder. There are suggestions that the lack of sunlight during the winter can affect your hypothalamus. According to the NHS, the hypothalamus looks after the following: 

  • production of melatonin – melatonin is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy; in people with SAD, the body may produce it in higher than normal levels
  • production of serotonin – serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep; a lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression
  • body's internal clock (circadian rhythm) –your body uses sunlight to time various important functions, such as when you wake up, so lower light levels during the winter may disrupt your body clock and lead to symptoms of SAD

Not everyone affected by Seasons Affective Disorder experience these changes in mood during the wintertime. Some report symptoms to be worse in summer.

So what’s the difference between SAD and the winter blues?

The ‘winter blues’ is the colloquial term for mild feelings of feeling down or less energised during the winter months – usually the shorter period of colder weather between December and February. This can also be known as sub-syndromal SAD. It’s a common feeling, especially for those who live in parts of the world with clear seasonal variations.

What should you do if you think you’re suffering from SAD?

Go and see your doctor. SAD is usually diagnosed if you’ve had symptoms for two winter seasons or more. Your GP will be best placed to offer advice on treatment moving forward.

If you’re more winter blues than Seasonal Affective Disorder, look into making some changes to bring some positivity into your winter days.

  • Get outside in the light at least once a day. If your commute sees you leaving the house in the dark and getting home in the dark, make sure to go for a walk outside at lunchtime
  • Exercise regularly. Exercising releases endorphins that trigger positive feelings in the body
  • Manage your stress levels. Try not to compound your feelings by adding to them with undue stress