7 Signs Of Seasonal Affective Disorder – And How To Manage It

The change in seasons can have a big impact on our mental health.

Winter is coming, the weather is getting cold and the nights are getting darker. For some, the change in seasons means Christmas markets, hot drinks and bubble baths. For others, winter is a struggle to get through.

The lack of sunlight can affect our mood and make us experience SAD. SAD stands for seasonal affective disorder. This means that your mental state gets worse around a particular season. SAD can range from low mood to debilitating depression.

But how does the lack of sunlight affect our mental state? Dr Juliet Anton, who’s a chartered psychologist and founder of the new self-help app, AskDoc, says: “As we are less exposed to sunlight we receive less vitamin D, which we need to help us regulate our mood.

“The shorter days and less sunlight mean we often feel less inclined to do activities and may feel less motivated, which are key symptoms of SAD.”

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The seven common symptoms of SAD, according to the NHS, include:

  • 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.

As soon as you think you may be feeling symptoms of SAD, Dr Anton recommends doing some research online and trying self-help guides to manage your symptoms. ”If this is too difficult for you or things aren’t working, contact your GP who can make a referral to your local mental health team,” she says.

If you’ve realised that you’ve developed symptoms of SAD, try not to be so hard on yourself. Many people are affected by SAD, so you aren’t alone. Dr Anton recommends a few things you can do to tackle seasonal affective disorder.

How can you manage symptoms of SAD?

1. Take in the sunlight

While sunny weather is a rare sight across the UK in winter, it is still important to head outdoors and take in the fresh air. Winter weather means that people are less inclined to do any activity let alone go out for a walk, but getting enough vitamin D is important in helping you lift your mood.

If the weather is dark, rain is downpouring and you can’t bring yourself to head outdoors, sit near a window whilst working, get it done and out the way earlier on in the day, or go with a friend or family member, which might make the activity that bit more fun.

2. Engage in regular exercise

Encouraging hormones such as dopamine and endorphins are a fantastic way to lift your mood, especially in the winter. A workout at the gym or yoga class at your local leisure centre are things you can incorporate into your week to ensure that you get your body moving.

If cardio isn’t your thing, try a relaxing yoga class or pick up some weights to ease yourself in. Travelling to and from your gym or leisure centre will expose you to the necessary sunlight.

3. Eat the rainbow

When sunshine is in short supply, infusing your diet with some healthy choices is a great way to give your mood a boost. Citrus fruits can help us to feel refreshed while green vegetables give us an influx of iron and energy – perfect for when you feel lethargic.

While you may struggle to feel motivated to cook after a long day at work, cooking is a great distraction and a way to destress, so have fun creating new recipes and treat cooking dinner as a form of self-care. Don’t forget the vitamin D that we would otherwise get from sunlight – be it foods or supplements, make sure to include vitamin D in your diet during winter months.

4. Use cognitive behavioural therapy

It’s not uncommon for people to keep calm and carry on, often ignoring our mental health problems and leaving them to stack up. That said, it is important to get help when you need it.

Much like the rest of our body, when our brain is in pain, it’s helpful to get some help from a mental health professional such as a psychologist.

5. Try a light box

Bright light therapy is considered very effective for battling SAD. Sitting in front of a light box for around 20 to 30 minutes a day can help encourage a chemical change in your brain that boosts your mood, which in turn addresses symptoms of SAD. Safe to use and widely available, a bit of light therapy may help you feel braver and brighter on your chilly winter commute to work.

And remember, if your symptoms do not feel manageable or are preventing you from living your day-to-day life as you’d like, visit your GP.

Help and support:

  • 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).
  • CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.