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Tackling Seasonal Affective Disorder

Updated: Oct 9, 2023


Woman affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder
Being affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder is quite normal


Now that the clocks have gone back, we are all experiencing reduced daylight hours here in Norwich as well as throughout the Northern Hemisphere - each day having slightly less than the one before. Halloween and Bonfire Night have come and gone. We know that we are heading into those dark and cold days of the year. To make matters worse, we may feel anxiety about putting on the heating with prices escalating and the current cost of living crisis. Christmas and the Winter Solstice are still some way to go and getting up each morning can feel like an increasing struggle. As our mammalian brains begin to adjust to these reduced daylight hours, we may notice that our need for sleep increases. And if you notice that your general mood is affected by these seasonal changes then you are not alone.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is the phenomenon of our mood being negatively affected by seasonal changes relating to lack of daylight. Although known about for millennia, this was given a scientific label in 1984 by psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal who went on to pioneer the use of light therapy- using specially designed light boxes to simulate daylight. Like so many ‘disorders’ associated with mental health, there has been debate about its diagnostic criteria. The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has now removed the SAD diagnosis having replaced it with reference to a ‘seasonal pattern’ of forms of depression.


Research into the SAD phenomenon suggests that 6% of the population suffer from it in its most acute form leading to an inability to function. There is evidence to support the hypothesis that these acute sufferers may have difficulties with regulation of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin along with difficulties producing Vitamin D.


However, there is some suggestion that SAD is part of a general phenomenon that affects all humans who live in Northern latitudes to some degree. A 2019 YouGov poll found that 29 per cent of UK adults experience milder forms of SAD with some kind of depressive symptoms over the winter period. Women were found to be 40 per cent more likely to experience this.

The NHS defines symptoms of SAD as:

  • a persistent low mood

  • a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities

  • irritability

  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness

  • feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day

  • sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning

  • craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

  • difficulty concentrating

  • decreased sex drive

How to Reduce Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Firstly, it goes without saying that, if you are struggling to cope with your mental health, then the first port of call should be your GP. They may prescribe talking therapies or anti-depressants as they consider appropriate. However, for those suffering from milder versions of the winter blues, the following guidelines may be helpful to maximise your mental health during this time of the year.


Seven Tips for Beating the Winter Blues

1. Try to get outside where you can, ideally getting at least half an hour’s daily exposure to sunlight where possible. At weekends prioritise getting outside during daylight hours. Walking in nature can enhance one’s mood. For those people unable to access sunlight, ‘light therapy’ may be an option – using a light box to simulate sunlight exposure.

2. Prioritise sleep. Many people notice the need for increased amounts of sleep during the winter months as the body’s circadian rhythms adjust in response to the changes in daylight hours. This makes perfect sense as research has shown that the body’s melatonin (‘sleep hormone’) production is triggered by the pineal gland which is influenced by the amount of daylight in a 24 hour period. In the past, before the invention of electricity, our ancestors would have naturally retired to bed for the evening much earlier during the winter months. It may help to shift your perspective and see sleep as something very positive that nourishes the body and mind, so avoiding just one more Netflix episode and heading for bed instead. Try to maximise the night-time darkness in your bedroom and avoid light from TV or phone screens as research has shown that these disrupt our circadian rhythms.

3. Eat well. A healthy balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables is important. A regular intake of foods rich in Vitamin D (such as oily fish) is also highly recommended as your body will be less likely to produce this from direct sunlight. Many doctors recommend Vitamin D supplements, particularly for people with darker skin.

4. Take regular exercise. This is particularly helpful if done out in the open air. However, it is also important to pick a form of exercise that works for you and that you enjoy, whether that means gym work, playing team sports, walking, running, yoga, etc.

5. Practice daily stress therapy. For example, the use of regular mindfulness, meditation, breathing or relaxation techniques can help bring down anxiety and increase tolerance of stressful situations.

6. Consider talking therapies. Any anxiety therapy incorporating elements of cognitive behavioural therapy can explore how thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviours are interconnected, sometimes trapping us in a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and feelings. Many people have found hypnotherapy useful in reframing one’s perception of this time of year and changing habitual patterns of behaviour and thinking into more relaxed and positive states of mind.

7. Acceptance – Realise that some changes in emotion are perhaps inevitable and part of just being human. Don’t beat yourself up about episodes of low mood. Be kind to yourself. Remember that, in time, these periods usually pass. However, if you genuinely do feel overwhelmed, seek help from your GP or, out of hours, contact the Samaritans.


Contact neil@focusedattention if you would like to explore how I could help you or just click on the button below.

Useful Links

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5299389/

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3 Comments


lifesariot40
Nov 20, 2022

Very helpful article, Neil - lots of good tips for people affected by SAD. In these darker months getting outside whenever there's a bit of sunshine (and even when there isn't) is always a great help to me. It also helps to remember that winter always turns to spring, and that it's never that long until the days start getting longer again 😊

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Tim Bannister
Tim Bannister
Nov 19, 2022

Very interesting read… for me a healthy diet and lots of sleep make a real difference.

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Clementine VandenBergh
Clementine VandenBergh
Nov 18, 2022

This was a really interesting article. So many useful tips 👍

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