What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD) is a very common mental health disorder. It is a type of depression that people will only experience at specific times of the year. Most people start to feel the effects during the winter months - when the days grow shorter, greyer and colder. It is especially prevalent in the United Kingdom as the weather changes are quite adverse. Many people who suffer from SAD struggle to get an accurate diagnosis as it is often confused with depression or anxiety.
It is perfectly reasonable to feel a little unhappy when the dark nights come, and you have to accept there are no more opportunities to sit in the sunshine this year. It is also normal to feel like you don’t want to leave your bed in the winter months because of how cold it is outside. However, if you do suffer from SAD, then the change in the months or seasons will impact upon your frame of mind and also energy levels, which can consequently lead to feeling various symptoms of depression.
Symptoms of SAD

There are multiple symptoms of SAD, and if you have been diagnosed, it may be because you have noticed a pattern in your feelings over recent years. Some of the symptoms can include:

  • Struggling to complete everyday tasks, e.g. going to work, cleaning around the house.
  • Struggling to concentrate.
  • Feeling depressed, low, sad or guilty
  • Feeling like you don’t want to see people or take part in social activities like you used to.
  • Struggling to sleep at night or sleeping for longer than you usually would.
  • Anxiety - not being able to control yourself, worrying about everything and even having panic attacks.
  • Your immune system is low, and you find yourself being more prone to illnesses.

Causes of SAD

There are multiple theories surrounding what causes seasonal affective disorder, to this day, there is still no precise explanation. The main theory is that a part of the brain called the hypothalamus can stop working correctly when it doesn’t receive enough sunlight, and it can affect the following things in your body:

  • Melatonin production. This is a hormone within the body that causes you to feel tired and sleepy. People who do suffer from SAD tend to produce more of this hormone.
  • Serotonin. This is a hormone which is produced by your body which affects your mood, sleep and appetite. Having a lack of sunlight can cause a drop in the levels of this hormone which will cause symptoms of depression.
  • Body clock. In the summer months, the sun is up earlier, goes down later and is brighter. Some people use this as their natural body clock to wake up, so when the months change this can cause a hiccup in your sleeping pattern and cause you to suffer from the symptoms of SAD.

What treatments are available?

Many people can develop their own coping strategies to manage their SAD. However, if you are struggling to find one that works for you, here are some ideas.

  • Making the most of natural light, even though SAD is a season disorder, getting out in as much light as possible will help to reduce your symptoms.
  • You can make small changes to your lifestyle, like going for a daily walk or cycling to the shops instead of driving.
  • Managing your stress can also help massively with your seasonal affective disorder; people can find winter a very stressful time of year, and by planning ahead, you can help to reduce your stress. Christmas can be hectic even for the most organised people, but planning will help you to take control of this. If you purchase your gifts and pre-order your Christmas shop in the summer, you are more likely to have a better mindset and a positive approach to it.
  • Also, make sure you relax, you should know yourself what you like to do and what makes you feel at ease, such as shopping, having a massage, visiting family or going for a dog walk. Whatever it is make time to do them and concentrate on yourself.
  • You may have heard it a thousand times before but living healthily, and exercising can really help you to develop a more positive mindset. When you exercise your body will release endorphins which help you to feel happy!

If you have found that you have tried all the self-care tips you can, and your SAD isn’t getting any better, then you should see a professional. Treatments like counselling are great for SAD as it can offer you support to address the underlying issues that could cause, or add to, your unhappiness. Counselling can provide you with a whole new perspective and help you to enjoy yourself all year round.

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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Warrington, Cheshire, WA4 6NU
Written by Dr Liddy Carver, Dr. Registered MBACP (Accred), PhD Counselling
Warrington, Cheshire, WA4 6NU

Prior to establishing her private practice in Warrington, Cheshire, Dr Liddy Carver was a Senior University Lecturer/Programme Leader in Counselling. Her therapeutic experience includes work in a university counselling service, national and independent, not for profit organisations and a city hospital occupational health department.

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