Have you ever noticed that people tend to feel a bit more glum at this time of year? It’s getting colder, wetter and darker, and the general mood just seems to dip a bit before the boost of Christmas? Maybe you’ve even felt that way yourself, or are feeling it now.
Did you know that feeling has a name? It’s called seasonal affective disorder, and it affects almost every person on the planet – even though they don’t know it. For a lot of people it’s just a general feeling of being slightly lower than normal, and can be a nuisance at times. But for others, seasonal affective disorder can be incredibly severe, leading to periods of intense depression over the winter months.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective disorder, also known as SAD, is a form of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. It’s also known as ‘winter depression’ since most people will experience symptoms during the winter months. For some people, seasonal affective disorder is nothing more than a minor irritation. But for others, it can be incredibly difficult to live with and have a profound impact on their day to day lives.
How Does it Feel?
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are incredibly similar to those of normal depression – the key difference is the fact that they occur repeatedly at a particular time of year. For most people, this is in autumn or winter when the levels of sunlight dip, and they start to improve in spring.
- A persistent low mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
- Feeling irritable
- Feelings of despair, worthlessness or guilt
- Low self-esteem
- Increased stress or feeling anxious
- A drop in sex drive
- Wanting to socialise less
- Being less active than normal, and feeling lethargic
- Difficulty concentrating
- An increase in appetite, particularly craving carbohydrates
- Finding it harder to get out of bed in the morning
If you’re finding it difficult to cope, we recommend seeking help, either from your GP or from a mental healthcare provider.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Unfortunately, we still don’t know the exact cause of seasonal affective disorder or have it pinned down to just one thing. But we do know that it’s often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days and darker months. This is because sunlight helps a part of your brain, called the hypothalamus, work properly, and without enough sunlight, it can start to lose effectiveness. Your hypothalamus is responsible for 3 things that could contribute to seasonal affective disorder:
- Production of Melatonin: This is the hormone that makes you feel sleepy, and regulates your sleep cycles. In people with seasonal affective disorder, their bodies produce more melatonin than normal, making them feel drowsy and lethargic.
- Production of Serotonin: Serotonin is one of the body’s ‘happy hormones’, and it affects your mood, appetite and sleep. A lack of sunlight can lead to lower than normal serotonin levels, which in turn can cause feelings of depression.
- Your Body’s Internal Clock: Also known as your circadian rhythm, your body clock tells you when to wake up and when to fall asleep. And sunlight is the key thing it uses to determine when that should happen. When you get less exposure to sunlight in the winter, your body’s natural circadian rhythm gets disrupted and this can lead to seasonal affective disorder.
But here’s the thing. Seasonal affective disorder affects everyone, in one form or another. It’s why we often feel a bit low or blue when the nights start creeping in and the weather starts to turn. For some people, it’s just a passing feeling, but for others, it’s a very severe mood change that can cause a lot of problems. If you only suffer mildly, then taking vitamin D supplements along with making sure you’re eating a balanced diet can make you feel a lot better. If you struggle with it a lot, then booking in some time with a therapist around October can be really helpful in helping you unpick how you’re feeling and get on top of things before they start to get bad. Seasonal affective can be incredibly difficult to deal with, but it can be managed with proactive mental health care.