Seasonal Depression

Seasonal Depression

In this article we will look at the cause, symptoms, and treatments for seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

This article has been medically approved by Pharmacist Sumaiya Patel - GPhC Reg No: 2215078

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is affected by the seasons. Typically, the symptoms are more severe in winter, although a few people may experience low mood in summer and feel better during the winter. In our article below, we will look at the cause, symptoms, and treatment for SAD, as well as some self help tips.

Symptoms of SAD

Symptoms of SAD can include:

  • Persistent low mood
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of despair, guilt, and worthlessness
  • Having low energy and feeling sleepy during the day
  • Sleeping more than normal
  • Craving carbohydrates
  • Gaining weight

These symptoms may be severe for some people and have a significant impact on their lives. The symptoms also come and go with the seasons.

What causes SAD?

The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, but it’s widely believed to be linked to reduced sunlight exposure during shorter autumn and winter days. It is thought that the lack of sunlight causes the a part of the brain (hypothalamus) to stop working correctly. This may cause:

  • Higher melatonin production - the hormone that makes you feel sleepy
  • Lower serotonin levels – the hormone that affects mood, appetite, and sleep
  • Disrupted internal clock – the body has an internal clock known as the circadian rhythm, which uses sunlight to regulate various vital functions such as what time you wake up. Lower light levels in Autumn and Winter seasons can affect this rhythm, leading to symptoms of SAD

Some cases of SAD appear to run in families, implying a genetic link between SAD and those affected.

Self Help Tips

Living with SAD can be difficult, but you may be able to manage your symptoms at home. It might be a process of trial and error to find what works for you, but don't put too much pressure on yourself if something isn't working for you.

If you experience more severe symptoms in winter, make the most of any natural light. Try to go for a walk, spend some time in parks or gardens, or sit near a window. You may also like to try light therapy, where a special lamp called a lightbox is used to simulate sunlight.

If you experience more symptoms during summer, make sure you drink plenty of water and stay hydrated. Look for ways to get shade; you could wear wide-brimmed hats or sunglasses. Staying inside to avoid the sun might lead to feelings of isolation, so try to find activities you can do indoors, like going to the cinema, visiting a museum, or going to an art gallery. You should also try to avoid going outside at the hottest times of day (noon – 3 pm), where possible.

No matter when you experience your symptoms, it's important to talk to someone. If you feel comfortable, you could talk to someone close to you like a friend or family member. Alternatively, you could contact a helpline like:

  • Samaritans – open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to listen to anything that's upsetting you. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone), email or visit some branches in person. You can also call the Welsh Language Line on 0300 123 3011 (7 pm–11 pm every day).
  • SANEline – support for people experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else. You can call them on 0300 304 7000 (4.30 pm–10.30 pm every day).
  • Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – support for anyone who identifies as male. You can call them on 0800 58 58 58 (5 pm–midnight every day) or use their webchat service.

Some people may find it helpful to keep a diary to keep track of your symptoms, including when they start and what seems to trigger them, especially changes in the weather. You should also keep a note of things that you've found helpful and anything that seems to make your symptoms worse. This diary could help you to notice any patterns and plan for difficult times. You could try to rearrange stressful plans for another time; plan relaxing activities to improve your mood; plan ahead, like stocking up on things you need and preparing early for special occasions; and try to make more spare time to rest or do things you enjoy.

Treatments for SAD

If your symptoms are stopping you from completing your usual daily tasks, or if you are struggling to cope, you should consider going to see your GP. They will be able to carry out a mood assessment to check your mental health. This may include questions about your mood, lifestyle, eating habits, sleeping patterns, and any seasonal changes in your thoughts and behaviour.

Your GP may suggest talking therapy, counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

You may also be offered an antidepressant, either on its own or in combination with talking therapy. This antidepressant will typically be a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).

You should have regular appointments with your doctor to track your progress. If a particular medication or therapy isn't working for you, they will be able to offer an alternative.