The nights are inching closer, the cold edging nearer: gloomy winter is upon us. For some of us, it’s a minor transition – this time of year we can celebrate an extra hour in bed. Yet for some, winter inflicts an inevitable gloomier outlook. Yet, how can you know when it transgresses from a decline in mood to a mental health issue? How can you spot the signs? We spoke with Psychologist, Elaine Slater, to ask for her advice on how to prevent Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), how to diagnose it and how to treat the issue and manage the symptoms and side-effects.
Can you explain what Seasonal Affective Disorder is and what the symptoms are?
SAD is a significant mental health issue. It is a mood disorder in which individuals who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience ‘seasonal depression’. SAD primarily occurs during December, January and February but symptoms can start between September and November and continue until March, April or even May.
SAD affects around half a million people in the UK. The disorder is caused by a biochemical imbalance in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus which controls mood, appetite and sleep. This is thought to be induced by the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter. You are more likely to experience SAD if you live in a country where there are significant changes to daylight, temperature and weather between seasons.
There are many different symptoms and they can vary between sufferers. If symptoms persist for three consecutive years you are likely to receive a diagnosis of SAD.
Here’s what to look out for:
· Feeling sad, low, tearful or depressed for most of the day
· Feeling hopeless and despairing
· Sleep problems, oversleeping or insomnia
· Mood swings and irritability
· Anxiety and difficulty concentrating
· Guilt and loss of self-esteem
· Overeating – in particular craving carbohydrates to boost mood
· Weakened immune system – being more prone to illness during the winter months
· Loss of Libido
· Lethargy and apathy
How can you deal with these symptoms if you think you have it?
Many individuals with SAD recognise that their symptoms are seasonal and develop self-help strategies that allow them to manage the condition themselves.
· Make the most of natural light. Use any opportunity to be exposed to natural light when possible in particular during your lunch hour at work
· Exercise and try to keep moving – it doesn’t have to be anything particularly strenuous. Physical activity increases energy levels and lifts our mood. Doing something physical in the outdoors, in a green space can be especially helpful
· Manage the SAD cravings for carbohydrates with a balanced healthy diet
· Avoid and manage stress where possible. If you can, try to create more spare time to mindfully rest, relax and unwind.