Feeling a bit more than just under the weather? What to look for when it comes to Seasonal Affective Disorder
Oh, kia ora winter. How we haven’t missed you.
Isn’t it funny how the change of season sneaks up on you every. darn. year? All of a sudden it’s a mad dash to the back of the wardrobe to find the scarves, gloves and coats you gleefully shoved to the back last September as you grumble about the bottomed-out mercury and frost covering in the windshield (and how last year’s merino doesn’t seem to fit… it’s obviously shrunk in the closet, right?).
It’s completely normal to feel a little blah about winter moving in. But can it be more than a dose of the winter blues?
As it turns out, yah, it can – and it’s an actual thing. Introducing SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a type of depression that’s related to the changing of the seasons from summer to winter – and like depression, without treatment it can be seriously debilitating.
Says the Mental Health Foundation, “Like depression, SAD can affect how you feel and behave for weeks or months at a time. When you are depressed, your low mood lasts, affecting your sleep, energy levels, relationships, job and appetite. The difference between depression and SAD is that if you experience SAD your symptoms will appear around the end of autumn, and continue through until the days get longer and sunnier in spring.”
When Emily* started to feel a little blah when the weather began to turn just before the winter of 2018, she put it down to normal mood fluctuations.
“I’m a massive summer baby so I’m always a bit gutted when winter rolls around. But then I didn’t snap out of the funk I was in for days, and then it turned into weeks, and then into months. I’m usually such an outgoing person and all I wanted to do was stay in bed and watch TV, which isn’t like me at all.”
Thinking she might be suffering from depression, she visited her GP who diagnosed Emily with SAD.
“I felt like such an idiot. Who gets depressed just because it’s winter? I know that depression strike out of absolutely nowhere and I understand how that happens in your brain, but I thought that being this sad, and not being able to actually live my life just because I couldn’t get over the fact it was cold was ridiculous.”
While it’s more prevalent in countries who experience very harsh winters, such as Scandinavian countries, us in Aotearoa are by no means immune to its effects, with SAD affecting about one per cent of us. So, what causes it?
Well, no one is really sure. One leading theory is a lack of vitamin D, which makes sense given our biggest natural source is usually sunlight. Rates of SAD also increased over the northern hemisphere winter, with clinicians pointing to Covid-19 and people’s overall decreased exposure to sunlight. Oh and of course, the ranging global pandemic in general.
It’s also thought that winter’s earlier sunsets and later sunrises disrupt the body’s internal clock, which in turn causes changes to the chemicals in our brains.
Suffers report feeling lethargic and wanting to sleep a lot, but still being super tired upon waking, junk food cravings, feeling irritable, anxious or sad, weight changes, and wanting to be alone a lot, as well as having trouble concentrating.
While those with mild SAD might be able to combat their symptoms themselves with guidance from a medical professional, for others like Emily, antidepressants might be prescribed.
“If I’m honest, I wasn’t thrilled about it,” she nods. “But I took my doctor’s advice, and they really helped, and I was able to be weaned off them as the weather improved.”
Having a deeper understanding of SAD has meant since, Emily has been able to control the symptoms a little better, but always reaches out to her doctor and now her therapist.
So, if you think this is something you might be suffering from too, what can you do?
First of all, consult your doctor or medical health professional – they’ll be able to sort you out with a plan that’s specific just for you. Other studies have also found the following can be helpful:
- Invest in a light box or other circadian lighting system. Light therapy has been used for a while now to help conditions such as insomnia, depression and jet lag. When you’re exposed to bright light in the morning, it kick-starts your body’s natural circadian rhythm.
- Going for walks first thing in the morning and last thing at night – great for telling your brain to either wake up or wind down, plus the blast of fresh air is awesome for your mood and body.
- The old ‘eat well and exercise thing’. I know I know, but there’s a reason why! Look for foods high in vitamin D, like fatty fish, cheese, egg yolks and mushrooms.
- A vitamin D supplement, if needed (ask your doctor).
*None of the information in the above story should be taken over your doctor’s advice. If you’re concerned you’re suffering from any physical or mental illness, please consult a medical professional
*Name changed to protect privacy