Don't let the weather get you down

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression triggered by the seasonal switch. Abi Jackson went to learn more about SAD.

SPRING FEVER: Happily the days are getting longer, as lack of light contributes to SAD

Many will have felt down in the dumps too, the grisly weather and long, dark nights taking their toll, counting down the days until spring, when everything will be cheerier, brighter, more fun.

But when does a touch of winter blues become full-blown seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? 

It is a form of depression triggered by the seasonal switch.

“You might be feeling like you don’t really want to meet anybody, you’re spending more time at home and isolating yourself. You’re sleeping more, or you’re sleeping less, becoming fidgety and irritable,” says psychologist and CBT psychotherapist, Chireal Shallow.

“It’s a general sense of not being your usual self. You might not take great care of your appearance, you lose your temper a bit more, there’s also loss of appetite [though some people may find they over-eat].

“SAD is depression, but it just happens at a time when it’s affected by the cycles of nature.”

CBT psychotherapist Chireal Shallow.

SAD was only officially recognised as a disorder in the 1980s. 

It’s thought the lack of sunlight during winter affects the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to mood, appetite and sleep regulation (aka ‘the happy hormone’).

Ms Shallow notes “some people are more sensitive” to these changes.

She points out that it’s normal to have off days and not feel at our happiest all of the time; it doesn’t automatically mean there’s something wrong.

“It’s important to normalise low mood. We all have periods of the day when our mood fluctuates, and that’s normal,” says Ms Shallow. 

“In my view, most people will experience some kind of slump [during winter] because they’re more sedentary. We’ll be getting up in the dark, coming home in the dark; we will have a dip in our motivation and energy levels.

“But when you’ve got someone who’s experiencing it every day, that’s an indicator you’ve got something going on,” she adds. 

“And are you plagued with negative thoughts, like you’d be better off dead or hurting yourself in some way?”

Another indicator is where a drop in mood and motivation starts to “significantly impact on your ability to do your day-to-day activities”.

“When somebody is unable, because of how bad they feel, to get out of bed, leave the house, to talk to anybody, that’s a real concern,” states Shallow.

There’s lots that can be done to help manage SAD and reduce symptoms. 

Shallow notes the condition can vary in severity too, which might influence the treatment options recommended. 

“Guidelines suggest treatment for severe depression is medication and behavioural therapy, CBT,” she says, adding that some might benefit from “behavioural prompts and tools”.

This might mean self-help books, therapy, or making tweaks to our behaviours and choices that could make a big difference.

For example, “thinking about the food that we eat — we tend to eat more carbohydrate ‘comfort food’ in winter, and that can make us more sluggish and slows us down”, Shallow points out. 

Sticking to regular sleep patterns, getting plenty of exercise, and avoiding stress at work are also things that can help us manage low moods.



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