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Are the dark winter days getting you down? Here’s why (and 6 things you can do about it)


Image of woman looking out of rainy window
Image credit: dashu83 (Freepik)

Tips & tricks / by Ufuoma Onemu


Do you get grumpy and sad when the weather changes? Do you feel tired and want to spend your whole day fast asleep? Don’t worry, you’re not alone or weird – you just might be dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Ufuoma Onemu talks us through what SAD is and gives some of her tips to deal with it.


Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression or seasonal depression, is a form of depression triggered by a change in seasons. SAD symptoms commonly start at the same time each year, around the start of autumn and winter, and usually ease up as spring arrives.


SAD can be easily overlooked as winter blues, but if your symptoms are overwhelming and interfere with your daily activities, keep reading to find out what you can do about it.


What are the signs and symptoms of SAD?

SAD brings about changes in mood and behaviour which are similar to depression. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and include:

  • Oversleeping

  • Fatigue/low energy

  • Dietary changes (most often, strong craving for foods with high carbohydrate content)

  • Weight gain (caused by a high-carbohydrate diet and overeating).

These symptoms exist alongside other symptoms of major depression such as:

  • Anhedonia (losing pleasure in activities you previously enjoyed)

  • Strong feelings of sadness, worthlessness, guilt, and hopelessness

  • Difficulty concentrating or when issues with making decisions

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • A noticeable delay in movement or speech

  • Increased purposeless gestures and movements (pacing, fidgeting, being unable to sit still)

For some people, SAD symptoms may begin in spring or summer and ease up in autumn or winter. Symptoms specific to summer-onset SAD – sometimes called summer depression – may include trouble sleeping (insomnia), poor appetite, weight loss, and agitation or anxiety.





Why do I have SAD and my friend doesn’t?

Just like any other disorder, SAD has its own causes and risk factors. This means that some people are more likely to experience SAD than others.


Age and gender

Although SAD may begin at any age, it is more common among younger adults, with most people experiencing their first episode of SAD between the ages of 18 and 30. Women are also more likely to experience SAD than men.


Location

Your location can also have an effect on the likelihood of you experiencing symptoms of SAD. People who live far south or far north of the equator are more susceptible to it. Research has shown that SAD is more common among people living in these areas because of reduced sunlight and shorter daylight hours during winter.


Circadian rhythm

Your circadian rhythm is the internal clock by which your body operates. Reduced sunlight and shorter daylight hours can disrupt your internal clock and result in a biochemical imbalance. Melatonin, the hormone which regulates sleep, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, are both affected, causing an imbalance that can stir up the symptoms of SAD.


Genetics and psychological history

If you have a family member who suffers from major depressive disorder, SAD, or any other form of depression, you have a higher chance of experiencing SAD than those without a family member affected.. Equally, if you have bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder or any other form of depression, you might be susceptible to more severe symptoms as the seasons change.

 

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6 things you can do to relieve SAD


Seasonal affective disorder symptoms often reduce as the winter season fades into spring. But if SAD is affecting your daily life, try these tips and tricks to relieve your symptoms.


1) Try light therapy

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a form of therapy used as a first-line treatment for autumn/winter-onset SAD. Light therapy makes use of a specialised light box that emits light bright enough to mimic natural daylight. This exposure helps to reverse the biochemical imbalance triggered by the reduced sunlight.


Every morning, exposing yourself to the light box within the first hour of waking up for 20 minutes or more every day may help and has in fact been shown to produce positive results from just a few days to a few weeks, with minimal side effects. To maximise your benefits, begin the therapy in early autumn and continue treatment throughout the winter.


2) Use a dawn simulator

A dawn simulator is an alarm clock that produces light which increases in intensity as time passes, like the sun does. Instead of sound, a dawn simulator wakes you by creating the illusion of sunlight filling the room. Opt for a dawn simulator that produces full-spectrum light (most similar to sunlight). Some studies have shown that dawn simulators can be as effective as light therapy for people with mild SAD.


3) Take advantage of the available sunlight

Getting more sunlight can help alleviate the symptoms of SAD in some people. Try to spend more time outside, especially at noon or after noon when the sun is brightest. Indoors, open any curtains to let in as much natural light as is possible.

Rearranging your office or room in a way that ensures you are facing a window at daytime can also help.


4) Introduce more Vitamin D into your diet

According to the National Center For Complementary And Integrative Health (NCCIH), people with SAD often have low Vitamin D levels, which may be as a result of low dietary intake or minimal sunlight exposure. Apart from sunlight, Vitamin D rich foods, such as salmon, eggs or mushrooms, could help, while supplements may also be helpful. Ask your doctor to check your vitamin D levels and determine if supplements are a good option for you.





5) Stay active

A good way to combat the fatigue that SAD brings is by staying fit. Regular exercise during autumn and winter can help to keep your circadian rhythm in balance and relieve SAD symptoms. Additionally, physical activity will improve your mood and increase your energy levels. If exercise is not your cup of tea, try to stay active in other ways. Volunteering, going on walks, hanging out with friends, walking your dog, or joining a yoga class are just a few options!


6) Talk to your doctor

For severe SAD, your doctor can prescribe antidepressants for you to use from autumn until spring. You will need to note when the symptoms start and start using the medication before they worsen.


It's better to be safe than sorry!


SAD can be mild or severe for some people, and may start out mild and worsen as the season progresses. If SAD disrupts your daily activities, using these techniques to alleviate them may be a good idea. Remember that SAD can exacerbate and cause other problems such as substance use, anxiety, and eating disorders if not properly diagnosed and managed, so even if you’re unsure whether you’re experiencing SAD, it’s best to remain cautious.

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