Mental Health

How to help Seasonal Affective Disorder

The turning back of the clocks is often met with conflicting responses. Some see the return to Greenwich Mean Time from British Summer Time, with its darker evenings and shortening days, as an exciting sign that winter is on the way, and with it hot mulled drinks and festive cheer. For others, the prospect is far bleaker as short, dark days can bring about not just a mild case of the winter blues, but Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a more debilitating condition.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is the onset of a depressive state during certain times of the year. It is most prevalent in populations who live furthest away from the equator, who therefore experience more dramatic seasonal changes in the weather and daylight hours. SAD manifests as feelings of depression, fatigue, sleeplessness and irritability. Many people in the northern hemisphere experience some level of behavioural change during the winter months, such as slight changes to sleeping patterns with the longer evenings, mild energy changes or wanting to spend less time outside in the cold weather. This is normal, but when mood changes begin to affect your daily functioning, something more serious may be at play.

In recent years, scientists have called into question the legitimacy of diagnoses of the disorder, following the results of a large study. Of the study’s participants who reported depressive symptoms, evidence was not found for seasonal differences or for levels of light having an impact. The results also did not suggest that there were higher levels of depressive symptoms reported by those who responded to the study survey in winter months. The researchers concluded that being depressed in winter did not mean participants were depressed because of winter.

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Many people, however, do notice a distinct difference in mood during the winter months, and their concerns should be taken seriously. While it is not certain what causes SAD, the leading theory is that experiencing a lack of sunlight can affect how well a part of your brain called the hypothalamus works. In turn, this can cause an over-production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy. It can also lead to lower levels of serotonin, a hormone that affects mood, appetite and sleep, that is linked to feelings of depression when levels are low.

What are the treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

If you have been experiencing a persistent low mood that limits the pleasure you feel in everyday activities; if you feel lethargic and struggle to get up in the morning; or if you experience feelings of despair and worthlessness, your first port of call should be to book an appointment with the GP, who will recommend the most appropriate treatment. There are a number of treatments available for those experiencing SAD:

Daylight lamps

Within 30 minutes of waking up, we experience the cortisol awakening response (CAR) which is a sharp spike of the stress hormone cortisol. When we wake up with light, the spike is greater, which promotes better brain function, setting us up well for the day ahead. When waking up in the winter months, those with SAD have lower CARs than non-sufferers. This is where daylight lamps come in: awakening with a dawn-simulating light can restore a person’s CAR, making it an effective treatment for those struggling with the winter blues. More morning cortisol is linked with better brain plasticity (its ability to grow, change, and produce new neural pathways) and function, helping us to perform better during the day.

We noticed a marked difference in the ease with which we woke up on dark mornings when using a daylight lamp – we particularly like the Philips HF3531 wake-up light, which fills the room with a warm glow, much like that of a summer sunrise, which awakens you naturally and gently, even when it is still dark outside. If an extra nudge is needed, it is even fitted with an FM radio and comes with natural alarm sounds like birdsong.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT has been used as an effective treatment option for conditions such as anxiety and depression for decades. It is based around recognizing negative thoughts that can feed depressive tendencies. Instead of dwelling on these thoughts, you are encouraged to tweak them into more positive, empowering and flexible attitudes. A clinical trial at the University of Vermont compared the success rates of light therapy and CBT, then followed up findings two winters later. While both were effective, those treated with CBT experienced less severe winter symptoms and had fewer SAD relapses.

While daylight lamps are an effective solution, they require dedicated daily use throughout autumn and winter until spring arrives. CBT may be a more durable option that enables greater self-sufficiency and less of a dependency on regular light treatment. If you believe CBT may be helpful, talk to your GP, who may refer you for counselling. If you have the means to pay for counselling privately, this may enable you to access treatment more quickly.

Practice winter activities

In certain parts of the world, such as Tromsø in Norway, seasonal light changes are so severe that they experience ‘polar night’, where the sun does not rise above the horizon. This can last for as long as two months. In Tromsø, however, levels of SAD are lower than you might expect, considering the gloomy surroundings. When a researcher in psychology decided to uncover why many people in Tromsø not only survive, but thrive, in the dark winter months, she concluded that it was all down to mindset. Many of Tromsø’s residents actively looked forward to winter, with its opportunities for skiing and koselig (cosiness) – lighting candles and fires and enjoying hot drinks under blankets – much like Danish hygge. As a result, they make the most of the unique opportunities of the season, feeling inspired and incentivised rather than defeated and limited. That’s surely an attitude we can all take on board.

While many of us report experiencing low moods in winter, there are many positive steps we can take to address them. Through maintaining positive attitudes and behaviours, and admitting when we need some help, we can ensure that low moods aren’t given the opportunity to set in for the season. When we achieve this mindset, we can see winter in a new light.

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