Combating seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

For many, the transition to shorter days when the clocks roll back is marked by cosy evenings and the anticipation of winter festivities. However, for a significant number of people, this period can bring about feelings of sadness, lethargy and an overall lack of motivation. This condition, known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), affects numerous individuals worldwide.


Understanding SAD

SAD is a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. It typically manifests in the autumn and continues into the winter months, reducing its grip with the return of longer, sunnier days. The primary culprit? Reduced sunlight exposure can lead to a drop in serotonin – a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and a disruption in the body's internal clock or circadian rhythm.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that manifests at specific times of the year, most commonly in the fall and winter when daylight is reduced. Here are the common symptoms of winter-onset SAD (the most common):

  • Depressed mood: Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or worthlessness.
  • Loss of interest: Reduced interest in activities once enjoyed.
  • Changes in sleep: Oversleeping or difficulty waking up in the morning.
  • Changes in appetite: Craving for carbohydrate-rich foods, which can lead to weight gain.
  • Low energy: Feeling fatigued or lacking energy for daily tasks.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Challenges with focus or decision-making.
  • Feeling sluggish: Physical slowing or heaviness in the body.
  • Social withdrawal: Avoiding social activities or wanting to be alone most of the time.
  • Distinguishing between seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and chronic mental health conditions can be complex because many of the symptoms overlap. However, the primary differentiating feature of SAD is its distinct seasonal pattern.

How to address SAD

Light therapy

One of the most common treatments for SAD is light therapy. Special light boxes mimic natural sunlight and can help boost mood and reset the body's internal clock. Spend about 20-30 minutes each morning in front of a light box designed for SAD treatment.

Get outside

Even on cloudy days, natural light can be beneficial. Taking walks during the brightest parts of the day or choosing outdoor activities can be a mood enhancer.

Exercise regularly

Physical activity helps release endorphins, neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators. A routine of regular exercise can be a strong counter against the symptoms of SAD.

Maintain a balanced diet

Diet plays a role in mood. Opt for foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like fish, flaxseed and walnuts and those high in vitamin D, such as fortified milk or cereals.

Stick to a routine

Keeping a consistent sleep schedule and daily routine can help regulate the body's circadian rhythm and improve sleep quality.

Avoid alcohol and drugs

Both can act as depressants, potentially worsening the mood and counteracting any treatment benefits.

How can therapy help?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to be particularly effective for SAD. A therapist can help:

  • Identify and change negative thoughts and behaviours: CBT focuses on changing negative thought patterns, helping individuals respond to their environment in more positive ways.
  • Teach coping skills: Therapy can help individuals manage stress, identify early signs of their depression and implement strategies to prevent a full-blown episode
  • Offer support: Sometimes, the act of talking to someone and feeling heard can be therapeutic in itself.

SAD is more than just 'winter blues'. Recognising its impact is crucial. If you or someone you know experiences symptoms, remember, there are a myriad of treatment options available. As with all medical conditions, it's essential to consult with a healthcare professional about the best approach. A combination of self-help strategies and therapy can provide the tools to manage, alleviate or even prevent the debilitating effects of SAD.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Guildford GU5 & GU2
Guildford GU5 & GU2

Donna Morgan is a highly experienced Humanistic Mental Health Therapist with 26 years of practice. Her passion for helping individuals with their mental health has driven her to develop a compassionate and holistic approach to therapy. Donna firmly believes in treating each client as a unique individual and providing them with personalised support.

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