Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression experienced during the winter months. But is it possible to head it off before it takes hold?

SAD is thought to affect about 3% of the UK population, with most people first developing symptoms in their 20s or 30s. Having a condition that’s brought on by the winter season may make people feel that a yearly experience is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

What is SAD?

It’s a type of depression, thought to be triggered by the lack of light in the winter months. While many of us complain about the ‘winter blues’ (feeling a bit low when it’s dark and miserable outside), people with SAD experience more extreme, depressive symptoms.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Everyone is different, and people may experience some or all of the symptoms listed below:

  • Low mood
  • Loss of pleasure in everyday activities
  • Feeling tearful, guilty or worthless
  • Feeling stressed or irritable
  • Lowered sex drive
  • Feeling less sociable than usual
  • Change in appetite

While it can affect anyone, some people may be more prone to developing the condition than others – if there is a family history of depression, for example.

The nature and severity of SAD varies from person to person. For some, the condition might cause just mild irritation, while for others it can have a significant impact on their day-to-day life.

How is SAD treated?

There are various ways you can treat SAD. If you, or someone you know, are struggling to cope with symptoms, it’s important to go and see the GP to determine the best course of action.

There are a number of treatments available. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that SAD is treated in the same way as other forms of depression. This includes talking treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or taking a course of antidepressants.

Light therapy, which involves sitting by a lightbox for 30 minutes to an hour each day, is also a popular treatment for SAD, although NICE has no clear evidence of its effectiveness. The idea is that the lightbox simulates the sunlight you’re missing during the winter months, encouraging your body to produce more serotonin. Visit the NHS website [https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/treatment/] to read more about the treatment options for SAD.

Is SAD inevitable every year?

Once the condition is recognised, there are some simple things that might help at the first sign of winter:

  • Get as much sunlight as possible
  • Make your work and home environments as light and airy as possible
  • Sit near windows when you’re indoors
  • Take plenty of regular exercise, particularly outdoors and in daylight
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • If possible, avoid stressful situations and take steps to manage stress

It can also be helpful to talk to your family and friends about SAD, so that they can understand how your mood changes during the winter, and support you more effectively.

How I control my SAD

Gill, 66, has experienced the symptoms of SAD for many years. However, she’s developed a range of helpful coping mechanisms.

“I think I probably suffered for years without knowing what it was,” she says. “It seemed to get worse, too, around the time I went through the menopause.

“My symptoms start each year with a sense of dread and foreboding. I actually feel almost sick when the clocks change in October. I have an increased sense of lethargy and feel very joyless and quite tearful. I call myself ‘bisolar’ because I have more energy, much lighter moods, and am more creative and productive in the lighter months.”

SAD has become more widely understood in recent years, and once Gill recognised that her symptoms were related to a specific condition, she was able to take action. “I have a lightbox, and I start using it at the beginning of September and carry on until April,” she says. “I also have a clock in my bedroom that simulates sunrise and sunset.”

She also takes a daily dose of Vitamin D. “I’m not sure if this makes a physical difference, but it seems to help, even if it’s only psychologically,” she says.

As well as light therapy, Gill has found a range of things that help her personally. “I leave some clocks on British Summer Time, so I can look at them and think that the light WILL come back,” she says. “I leave it as long as possible before turning on the lights and drawing curtains. And I make sure I take regular exercise and drink plenty of water. I also try to eat a healthy diet – I eat oranges and satsumas and try to imagine I’m filling up with sunshine!”

Finally, she makes the most of what natural light is available. “If it’s a sunny day, I get outside,” she says. “I’m like a solar cell and I recharge in the sunlight. And I remind myself that it’s a condition. I may have it, but it doesn’t have me.”

Advice and support

If you think you might be experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, then you can find further advice and support on the NHS website

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