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Feeling SAD? 4 ways to combat seasonal affective disorder

SAD can impact your mood, energy, and sex drive – here’s how to beat it

Many of us get a bit gloomier in the winter months – and understandably so. When it’s dark when you wake up and dark when you finish work, it’s enough to make you want to stay home, chain hot water bottles, and effectively go into hibernation until March.

But for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (or SAD), the shift from summer to winter is more than a minor inconvenience. SAD isn’t just “the winter blues” – it’s a condition recognised by the NHS and, just like depression, can wreak havoc on a person’s wellbeing.

But what is SAD exactly, and how can people alleviate its symptoms? We spoke to Dr Jon Van Niekerk, a psychiatrist at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to find out more.

WHAT IS SAD?

SAD – perhaps the aptest acronym of all time –  is a type of depression which is triggered by changing seasonal weather patterns. It usually occurs during the transition from summer to winter, when the days get shorter and darker. For this reason, it’s sometimes called “winter depression”.

“SAD can present with similar symptoms to depression such as low mood or lack of interest and enjoyment in things you would normally enjoy,” Dr Van Niekerk says. Other symptoms include irritability, low sex drive, and lack of energy. SAD can also make it difficult for a person to carry out simple day-to-day tasks, such as getting out of bed in the morning.

It’s estimated that over two million people in the UK suffer from SAD.

WHY DO PEOPLE SUFFER FROM SAD?

As is the case with many mental health problems, a lack of research means that it’s not quite clear why SAD happens. “We don’t fully understand what causes SAD, but there has been a lot of research exploring how daylight can influence our mood, appetite and wakefulness,” Dr Van Niekerk explains.

The main theory is that a lack of sunlight during shorter autumn and winter days can affect a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. It’s the hypothalamus which controls the production of serotonin, the production of melatonin, and the body’s internal clock – which in turn influences our mood, appetite, and wakefulness. When these functions are thrown off-kilter, it can lead to symptoms of SAD.

HOW CAN YOU TREAT SAD?

Changing your habits is perhaps the easiest and quickest change to make if you’re feeling low as a result of the weather. “Some lifestyle changes that might help people with SAD feel better include getting as much natural sunlight as possible, like taking a walk during daylight hours, and exercising regularly,” Dr Van Niekerk says. “It can be helpful to keep in touch with friends and family to let them know how you’re feeling, and planning things to look forward to.”

Obviously, this is easier said than done – I think anyone who’s ever suffered from any mental health issue can attest to how annoying it is when someone suggests you ‘drink more water’ or ‘do the couch to 5k challenge’ when just getting out of bed and brushing your teeth seems impossible some days. But start small and try to establish a routine, no matter how simple it is.

‘Habit stacking’ is a good way to foster positive habits in your lifestyle too. The idea is simple: if you’re trying to incorporate a new habit into your routine, then ‘combine’ it with another habit that you enjoy or find easy. For example: if you’re WFH and struggling to get yourself to go on a walk in the mornings, decant your morning coffee into a KeepCup and only drink it once you’re out the house.

There’s also light therapy: you can also use a special lamp (called a ‘light box’) to simulate exposure to sunlight. Brands like Lumie offer a range of products that can help with SAD: from their light therapy boxes which can improve sleep, mood and energy, to their ‘wake up lights’ which tap into your circadian rhythms and wake you up in the morning by mimicking the sunrise.

If it gets really bad, you can try talking therapy. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling can also be a great help if you’re struggling with your mental health in the winter months. “If lifestyle changes are ineffective in treating SAD, your doctor might recommend talking therapies to help manage any associated impacts, including stress, anxiety and depression,” Dr Van Niekerk says. Of course, getting therapy is easier said than done. Waiting lists are long and going private is costly – especially during a cost of living crisis. So, if you’re under 25 and struggling to access face-to-face therapy, in the meantime, you can get free online support from The Mix.

There are also antidepressants. “In more severe cases,” Dr Van Niekerk explains, “your doctor might recommend medication like antidepressants during the winter months.”

Ultimately, if you think you have SAD and feel as though it’s impacting your ability to cope with daily life, you should seek professional help as your GP will be able to advise you on the best course of action.