Now that we’re into 2021 and the initial enthusiasm of New Year resolutions (if you made any) has started to wear off, many people are filled with dread.Why? – because they know that their symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD (sometimes called “Winter Blues”) will really kick in, if they didn’t start in November when the clocks went back.
If you hate the long winter evenings, feel exhausted, depressed and anxious and feel that hibernation would be preferable, you could be a sufferer. Most of us are affected to some extent by the changes in light, as well as craving stodgier comfort foods but for some people the longer, dark nights have far more of an effect.
For these people, feeling very low in mood, having negative thoughts and feelings also resul in a loss of self-esteem. Rather than just feel lethargic, they feel extreme fatigue to such an extent that they have an almost irresistible urge to sleep for several hours during the day. Their feelings of tension increase and their ability to deal with stress decreases.
Other symptoms may include increased irritability and a reduced interest in sex and physical contact.
SAD can begin at any age and may be triggered by other factors such as a change in environment, childbirth or illness. It occurs throughout the northern and southern hemispheres but is rare within 30 degrees of the equator.
The theory is that lack of sunlight may stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly which may affect the production of melatonin (a hormone that makes you feel sleepy; in people with SAD, the body may produce it in higher levels); the production of serotonin which is another hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep; a lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels; when the hypothalamus isn’t working properly it also affects the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and this impacts on various functions such as when you wake up. The lower light levels in winter may disrupt your body clock and lead to the symptoms above.
Most sufferers find that their symptoms improve and then disappear during the spring and summer, only to return again in the autumn and winter in a repetitive pattern. It may be that some people are more susceptible than others to SAD.
If you find that you’re experiencing the above symptoms, you should consider seeing your GP if you’re struggling to cope. You may be asked about your lifestyle, eating and sleeping patterns, and any change in mood or behaviour. Your GP will then recommend the most suitable treatment option for you, based on the nature and severity of your symptoms. A combination of treatments may be used to get the best results.
A number of treatments are available for SAD including cognitive behavioural therapy, antidepressants, lifestyle measures and light therapy.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been found to be helpful in treating SAD symptoms. CBT is based on the idea that we way we think and behave affects the way we feel. Changing the way you think about situations and what you can do about them can help you to feel better.
- Antidepressant medication may be prescribed – these are usually selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
- Lifestyle measures such as getting as much natural sunlight as possible (a short walk at lunchtime can help), managing stress and exercising regularly may well be helpful.
- Light therapy – a special lamp called a light box is used to simulate exposure to sunlight. This involves sitting by a special lamp called a light box, usually for around 30 minutes each morning. The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA) have specific guidelines for light boxes which may help. The recommended light boxes have filters to remove harmful ultraviolet rays.
The things that you can try for yourself include the lifestyle measures above, making your work and home environments as light and airy as possible as well as sitting near windows when you’re indoors. Eat a balanced diet, even though it’s tempting to eat a lot of carbohydrates.
By recognising the symptoms associated with SAD it is possible to then access treatment and hopefully this will help to alleviate the worst effects so that you can look forward to the remaining winter months without trepidation.
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