How to ease into autumn and winter when you have SAD

Going from light summer evenings to dark winter nights can be very daunting – especially if you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD): a type of depression related to changes in the seasons.

SAD is sometimes called the ‘winter depression’ because the symptoms are usually more severe during the colder months and tend to impact more people.

‘It is a mental health condition that can be triggered by a change in the seasons and a reduction in daylight,’ explains Harley Street therapist Chris Jones.

However, it is also worth noting that some people with SAD may actually have depressive symptoms during the summer and feel better during the winter.

Symptoms of SAD – and the causes:

Symptoms

The NHS website suggests that symptoms of SAD include: 

  • Persistent low mood.
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities.
  • Irritability.
  • Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness.
  • Feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day.
  • Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Decreased sex drive.

Causes

The exact causes of SAD are not fully known, but according to the NHS, it’s often linked to ‘reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days.’

One theory suggests that a lack of sunlight could stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus from working properly. This could impact:

  • Production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy, may be higher for people with SAD.
  • The production of serotonin, a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep, could be reduced when there is a lack of sunlight. This can lead to feelings of depression.
  • Body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) – our bodies use sunlight to time various functions, such as when we wake up, so less light during the winter may disrupt our body clock and lead to symptoms of SAD.

But as we head out of summer, how can we prepare ourselves for the upcoming autumn and winter months?

‘It can be confusing and debilitating for those who experience it. Many people are affected by it but have no idea that they have it, or what it is,’ explains Chris.

The below things may help a little.

Boost melatonin and serotonin

Chris says: ‘The best way for people to deal with it is to create an action plan that helps to boost melatonin and serotonin.’

The more prepared you are for the upcoming darker days, the easier they will be.

Food, exercise, supplements and just getting out in the daylight, are a few ways to boost both these things.

Keep busy

In addition to these, you could also try finding new activities to keep you occupied this winter.

You could also try to make plans that involve indoor activities (such as trips to the theatre, going to the cinema, getting dinner out etc), or you could save new TV shows and films to watch when it’s dark and gloomy after work.

Other things to try

In terms of practical solutions, Chris also suggests the following tips:

  • Increase your exercise levels.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • See friends and family.
  • Invest in a SAD lamp. They simulate sunlight and can help improve mood.
  • Increase your exposure to natural daylight (get up earlier, get out in the morning)
  • Spend as much time outdoors in nature to get your vitamin D.
  • Speak to your GP or a mental health specialist.

If your symptoms worsen, the NHS suggests talking to your GP for a referral to talking therapies, or for a discussion about starting antidepressant medication.

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