8 Things You Need To Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder

It's that time of year again🍁 🌧

October has arrived and summer seems a distant memory. With the arrival of the new season, you may be starting to feel like your mood is dampening and your energy levels are depleted.

If so, you could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD).

Classified as a type of depression, it is not known how many people in the UK are affected, with estimates varying hugely between 1 in every 3 people - a figure supported by the Royal College Of Psychiatrists - up to approximately 1 in every 15 people every year.

Either way, it is clear that SAD should be seen as more than just a case of the ‘winter blues’ that can be remedied with a pumpkin spiced latte, so here are 8 things everyone needs to know about the condition.

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1. SAD is most common in the winter months.

Although people can be diagnosed with SAD at any time of the year, it is typically between November and March that the most cases occur, according to Anxiety UK, because of the shortened length of the day and the lack of daylight.

Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at mental health charity Mind, tells HuffPost UK: “Most of us are affected by the change in seasons – it’s not unusual to feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer, or to find that you eat more or sleep longer in winter.

“However, if you experience SAD, the change in seasons will have a much greater effect on your mood and energy levels, and perhaps lead to symptoms of depression that have a significant impact on your day-to-day life.”

2. Symptoms include having less energy and finding routine tasks more difficult.

Not sure if you’re just feeling a little under the weather or are suffering with SAD? Common symptoms include depleted energy levels, changes in your diet and even physical muscle aches and pains.

Anxiety UK says: ”[Symptoms include] changes in eating, which may result in a preference for carbohydrates over healthier options, changes in sleep pattern and difficulty getting up in the morning, daytime drowsiness, changes in sex drive with a decrease in libido...difficulty concentrating, processing information and memory disturbance which can make routine tasks very difficult.

As well as: “Physical illness which can include muscle aches and pains and lowered immune system or changes in pre-menstrual mood.”

3. The causes of SAD still aren’t fully understood.

There are lots of different theories about what causes SAD, but the most convincing seem to be related to your geographical location coupled with the amount of sunlight and daytime people are getting.

The Mental Health Foundation cite an American study which showed prevalence of SAD in the southern states, such as Florida, was only 1.4%, but in states further away from the equator, such as Alaska, was as high as 9.9%.

Not to mention, the condition is “extremely rare” in populations of people living within 30 degrees of the equator.

“Research in the UK and USA has shown that SAD may in fact be linked to differing levels of the hormone melatonin, which is produced in the pineal gland and is essential for proper running of the body clock,” says Anxiety UK.

4. NICE recommends SAD is treated the same as depression.

So much more than the winter blues, NICE (National Institute For Health And Care Excellence) recommends GPs and medical professionals to take SAD seriously and be treated as depression. This includes talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medication such as anti-depressants.

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5. Light therapy has an 80% success rate in treating SAD.

One of the primary causes of SAD, and the reason it affects most people during the winter months, is changes to the amount of exposure to natural sunlight.

Living in the northern hemisphere, people can use artificial light sources and specially-created lamps to recreate the feeling of sunshine. These LED light boxes are different to a normal lamp because they are designed to emit the correct quantities of light - some of which help to wake you up in the morning, instead of an alarm clock, and some that can be kept on throughout the day.

Anxiety UK explains: “An effective treatment for SAD is light therapy, with a success rate of over 80% in diagnosed cases. This is a popular options as there are relatively few side effects.”

6. But make sure you are not neglecting your diet.

As tempting as it can be to dive head-first into a pile of mashed potato as soon as autumn arrives, Mind’s spokesperson argues that reaching for these comfort foods (high in fat and carbohydrates) can make the problem worse.

Buckley says: “They can often cause blood sugar levels to crash, resulting in sluggishness, it may also increase your anxiety levels. A healthy balanced diet is as important for your mental health as your physical health, so it’s best to include lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as fatty oils such as omega-3 and 6.”

7. Consider taking more annual leave in winter.

If you suffer with SAD annually, then it might be worth considering planning your annual leave so that you can take more time out of the office when you need it most.

The Mental Health Foundation says: “Taking more time off work for self-care during the winter months makes sense, as it’s when you need it more.”

8. Don’t ignore it if you’re feeling low.

And finally, if you are feeling like you might be suffering from SAD, don’t just presume that everyone is feeling the same and it has to be an accepted part of the changing seasons, give yourself a hand.

Chloe Botheridge, anxiety expert at Calmer You, says: ”If you notice you’re feeling low, despairing and more irritable than usual, you might be in a bad habit of giving yourself a hard time about this. Please don’t. Having the winter blues is a signal to take more care of yourself and be kind.”

Anxiety UK supports individuals living with or affected by anxiety, stress and anxiety based depression. For more information visit www.anxietyuk.org.uk or contact the national information line on 08444 775 774.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@getconnected.org.uk