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. damn. 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.”
SAD affects 10% of New Zealanders, usually beginning and ending around the same time every year, most commonly hitting in the fall and winter months.
Naturopath Erin O’Hara adds that people with SAD often experience changes in appetite or sleep patterns, have low energy levels, lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, and have difficulty concentrating.
“While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, it is believed to be related to changes in the body’s biological clock or circadian rhythm. The decrease in sunlight during fall and winter plays a significant role in the serotonin levels in our body, which is a neurotransmitter that affects mood and our internal clock. When our serotonin levels are disrupted and drop, we tend to see an imbalance in melatonin, which plays a role in our sleep and emotions.”
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.
Says Erin, “If you feel that dread creeping into your morning and you find the winter months difficult, you may be suffering from SAD. While there are no quick fixes to Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are many things that can be done to overcome it:
- Light therapy: Light therapy is one of the most effective treatments for SAD. It involves sitting in front of a bright light for a certain amount of time each day. The light mimics natural sunlight and can help regulate your circadian rhythm and boost serotonin levels.
- Exercise: Exercise is a natural mood booster and can help alleviate symptoms of depression. Even a short walk outside during the day can help increase your exposure to natural light and boost your mood. If the weather does not want to play ball, head indoors for a yoga class.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D is important for overall health, with low levels of vitamin D have been linked to depression. Talk to your naturopath or doctor about whether taking a vitamin D supplement might benefit you.
- Mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation is a type of meditation that focuses on being present in the moment. It has been shown to be an effective treatment for depression and can help alleviate symptoms of SAD.
- Social support: SAD can be isolating, so it’s important to stay connected with friends and family. Schedule regular social activities, even if they’re just video calls or phone conversations.
- Get outside: Even on cloudy days, getting outside and getting some fresh air can help boost your mood. Bundle up and take a walk or sit outside for a few minutes with a cup of tea and your favourite chocolate biscuit.
- Eat a healthy diet: A healthy diet can help improve your mood and energy levels. Focus on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
- Talk to a professional: If you’re struggling with SAD, it’s important to talk to a mental health professional. They can help you develop a treatment plan that’s tailored to your specific needs.
With proper treatment, many people with SAD can manage their symptoms and improve their outlook on life over the autumn and winter months. Whether you need to invest in some red light masks or sign up for some mindfulness apps, it is important to remember you are not alone. Effective treatments exist, and conversations with friends or family can help immensely on those days it all seems too much.
*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