As the evenings draw in and it’s dark when you get out of bed, do you notice your energy levels dropping and that you want to eat more (usually carbs) and sleep more? Could this be an indication that you may have seasonal depression? If so, what can I do about it?
Seasonal depression affects about 8% of the UK population during those winter months, according to mind.org.uk. It is a form of depression, where people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) tend to sleep more and crave carbohydrates resulting in weight gain, explains Dr. Norma Rosenthal (normanrosenthal.com), the psychiatrist who first described and named SAD in the 1980s.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/), a lack of light causes a biochemical imbalance in the brain, and this has an impact on a whole range of activities. The effects of SAD can be emotional, physical, mental and cognitive, with symptoms including depression, irritability, tiredness, anxiety, overeating and social problems. These tend to dissipate in the months of March or April with the return of longer periods of bright light.
A further 21 per cent of people in the UK experience a milder condition dubbed sub-syndromal SAD (AKA Winter Blues) where similar symptoms occur, but the psychological impact is less severe. Dr Rosenthal explains that “Many people are not as ebullient in winter. They lose their sparkle and function less effectively.”
Dr Rosenthal further explains that a reduced amount of light may result in reduced levels of serotonin (our wellbeing and happiness chemical) secretion, saying that “A compelling study in healthy volunteers in Australia showed that serotonin, the hormone that is linked to wellbeing, is directly correlated with light.”
If your feelings are affecting your everyday life, it could be a sign that you have depression. If these feelings reoccur at the same time of year, doctors might diagnose you with seasonal affective disorder or ‘seasonal depression’.
It can be frustrating and upsetting if people don’t understand this. If you are feeling alone you may find it a source of comfort to read Vicky’s Story from mind.org.uk. Vicky talks about her experience of SAD, its misconceptions, how seeking help has made a big difference and things she does to support her own mental health.
Additionally, according to the NHS, there are a range of effective treatments available:
Light therapy – where a special lamp called a light box is used to simulate exposure to sunlight.
Lifestyle measures – including getting as much natural sunlight as possible, exercising regularly and managing your stress levels.
Gentle exercise such as walking, yoga or meditation are recommended by mind.org.uk. Discover more about mindfulness meditation at calm.com.
Your GP will be able to determine which treatment you need.
If you would like to find out more about SAD and the support available, visit: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/treatment/