Seasonal Affective Disorder: not quite general depression but more than feeling the winter blues

It’s true that some people are more active in the summer and less so in the colder months for no reason, but for between 10 and 20 per cent of people there could be a medical cause for this lethargy. If you start to find yourself getting more tired in the winter months, craving comfort food and/or wanting to sleep more, you could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Very ironically shortened to SAD, it’s a disorder along the same spectrum as depression but only affects people towards the time of year when there’s less natural light around us. SAD is often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, because without knowing the scientific causes behind the disorder, the sufferer can wrongly assume they’re just having a bad few days.

It can be very easy to spot the signs of SAD. Similarly to general depressive illnesses, it can be hereditary and this can work to your advantage when it comes to a diagnosis. Doctors are usually hesitant to diagnose straight away, as it is difficult to differentiate between SAD and general depression whilst the winter months are here. Pointing out that it runs in your family can be a huge step towards getting professional help faster, if it’s necessary. Generally, doctors will try to wait for three reoccurring winter periods before giving an official diagnosis of SAD, but this doesn’t mean to say you can’t find solutions in the mean time.

Amelia Rowland, 20, found that her doctor refused to listen to her complaints: “I didn’t realise that SAD was an actual disorder at first.

“I told my doctor my symptoms and he only said that it could be diagnosed after a few reoccurring years.

“It left me feeling so helpless and wondering where these feelings had suddenly come from out of the blue.”

SAD is caused by a lack of sunlight. When late Autumn hits and the clocks go back, it can be easy to throw away tiredness as a result of changing pace, rather than a disorder. If you feel that things aren’t improving after a few weeks though, it could very possibly be that you’re suffering from SAD. Although the official cause is unknown, it’s widely circulated that SAD is caused by a combination of fluctuating or lowered serotonin and melatonin levels, and an upset circadian rhythm.

There are a few easy ways to combat the symptoms of SAD. For the majority of us, spending the winter months in a hot, sunny country isn’t an option, and it’s difficult to rely on British sunshine to get you through the months. The Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests making an effort to spend some time outside each day, as this can be a good way to combat the feelings associated with SAD and also be a good change of scenery for when you’re feeling low. Whether this is a stroll on your lunch break or taking the dogs for a longer walk in the mornings, the fresh air combined with the natural light will benefit you despite the winter nights.

However, British weather isn’t especially known for its bright days and the Autumn and Winter months are even worse. Another solution is to invest in a light therapy box. Varying from the size of an iPad to a small tv, these screens emit a 10,000 lux light which is on the same level in terms of power as natural light. They can be purchased online on Amazon or Ebay from £40 upwards and just need to be plugged in next to you for around an hour and a half a day. Putting the light box next to you when you’re sat at a desk or watching tv is an effortless way to increase your natural light exposure and results are typically seen in under two weeks.

SADA, The UK’s only non-commercial support organisation for SAD, recommends light boxes for the fastest course of treatment, although users should be wary and should ‘try before you buy’ if possible. Their website is focused around treatments for sufferers and can also work as a support network for friends and family.

Seasonal Affective Disorder can also be treated with psychotherapy and medication, although these aren’t as commonly used. People who suffer from depression throughout the year may find their symptoms worsen as the days get shorter and these methods are more likely to be given for this type of sufferer.

Statistics show that around one in 15 people will suffer from a mild form of SAD in their lifetime. Women are more frequently sufferers than men, and cases are primarily seen in the northern and southern hemispheres, outside 30 degrees of the Equator where longer days are the norm. It could be more than a coincidence that only two of SADA’s primary volunteers (all of whom suffer from SAD) are male.

So what is the best outcome? Without moving abroad for half the year it can seem difficult to find a positive outcome, especially with the inevitable year after year symptoms. However, with the right tools and a good support network, SAD can easily be dealt with, enabling you to live a happy life whatever the time of year.

 

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