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October 2023

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

We’re now well into the Autumn months, and as the days draw in and with cold spells more frequent, it is not uncommon for people to feel these changes through their emotions. For some, it’s the mourning of summer; the heat, the suns warm rays and the excitement of outdoor activities now less common, but for others, they could be affected all the more by a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, abbreviated, rather ironically to SAD. In this edition of the Dean Healthcare blog, we’re going to explore what SAD is, its effects on our mind and body and ways we might be able to combat them.

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What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as ‘winter depression’ is a phenomenon that occurs at this time of year. Scientists have yet to establish its origin entirely and why we feel SAD during the colder months, but it is highly hypothesised that Seasonal Affective Disorder is as a result of less exposure to sunlight, and in turn, a lack of serotonin – the chemical in our brain which helps us feel happy, calm and focused - as well as vitamin D, which also plays an important role in regulating our biological chemistry and mood. Interestingly, Seasonal Affective Disorder is more common in people living in countries far north or south of the equator, such as the UK, which contributes to the idea that sunlight, or a lack thereof, is likely a key contributor to these feelings.

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Do I have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Because Seasonal Affective Disorder is temporary, i.e. we only feel it at certain times of the year for small periods at a time, and because the effects are not typically overwhelming or unique, it can be difficult to diagnose as with other forms of depression. However, it is important to explore how this can make us feel in order to establish whether or not we can seek support and engage in activities that will stave off its unwanted effects.

According to the NHS website, symptoms of SAD are characterised by a feeling of sadness and include; irritability, a loss of pleasure or interest, a sense of guilt or despair, difficulty concentrating and a persistent low mood. It can also affect how we perform daily tasks, including; feeling lethargic with a consistent lack of energy, finding it harder to get up in the morning as well as over eating or eating with a dependence on carbohydrates.

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How can I combat the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Unfortunately, because research into Seasonal Affective Disorder is still in its early stages and the symptoms can be difficult to distinguish, it can be harder to ascertain concrete ways of combating its effects. However, there are options that you can incorporate into your daily life which may indeed keep those feelings of SAD at bay.

Simple changes include; sitting or working closer to a source of natural light, such as a window. Taking a walk during the morning or at lunchtime to expose your body to more healthy sunlight whilst is it available. Being physically active including an at home workout. Eating nutrient rich foods, which counteract the lack of vitamins sourced from the sun’s rays. As well as making a conscious effort to see more people in social environments, rather than recluse to the comforts of your own home. Interestingly, all these choices have a natural impact on levels of serotonin – the happy chemical we discussed earlier in the blog – when it comes to Seasonal Affective Disorder, self-care is incredibly important!

For those who might be more severely impacted by SAD, there are other options to consider; Exposure to light therapy is a common method used by long term sufferers of the condition. This involves sitting in front of a light box during the start of your morning for at least 30 minutes, in an effort to simulate sunlight and encourage our bodies to produce serotonin and melatonin. Additionally, cognitive therapies such as talking and exploring feelings with a therapist or counsellor may indeed reduce the affects of SAD. It is considered that talking about the way we think and feel can change the way we act in different situations and how we can do things to feel better about them. In the context of SAD, if we outwardly project feelings of happiness, strength and positivity we may be less affected by it as a result.

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Interesting facts about Seasonal Affective Disorder:

1. SAD is a subtype of depression and typically begins at around 20 years of age in those affected, or about the same age as full adult maturity.

2. SAD is far more prevalent in adults rather than children, and most common in young adult women. In fact, women are four times as likely to be affected than men.

3. SAD is also more likely to be present in your life if family members also suffer with the condition. Scientists do not yet know why this is the case but believe it is genetically linked as with other mental health conditions.

4. SAD is associated with weight gain because people commonly substitute sunlight – and feeling happy – with sugar, which is as equally mood enhancing as well as addictive.

5. SAD as a classified condition is generally quite recent. It was only recognised as early as 1984! Beforehand, people would typically refer to the symptoms as ‘winter blues’.

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How can I seek more support if I’m suffering with Seasonal Affective Disorder?

If you feel like Seasonal Affective Disorder is impacting you and your daily life you should always consult with your GP. It is important to note that SAD affects people in many different ways and you may not necessarily feel some or all of the symptoms we’ve explored in this blog. Your GP will talk to you about your current state of mind and overall mental health and carry out assessments on your mood, lifestyle, habits and sleeping patterns in order to better identify how you are affected and what treatment is best suited to you.