The strain Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, can vary from person to person. Around 3% of the population suffering at a more severe, debilitating level and around 20% experiencing milder symptoms, which can still have an unpleasant affect on how we feel. It is no wonder we call it Winter Depression.
SAD does share many of the same symptoms as depression, but it is important to note the differences. Once you know it is SAD you are suffering from, you can begin to tackle it.
What are SAD symptoms?
According to the NHS’s website, SAD causes:
- A persistent low mood
- A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
- Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
- Feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
- Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
- Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
SAD or a Bout of Depression?
You could be experiencing all of the above symptoms and be diagnosed as depressed as opposed to suffering from SAD. Seasonal Affective Disorder is characterised by how we feel depending on the time of year. You will experience the effects for around 5 months at a time, noticing a rapid decrease in symptoms as the winter season lifts.
If you suffer from year-round depression, SAD will intensify the symptoms throughout the darker months. To be diagnosed, your doctor will ask about your mood across previous seasons. If a pattern that spans across two or more years can link winter and your depression, there is a strong chance the cause is SAD. Seeking help from a doctor is an important first step in getting through the challenges this disorder can present.
Why do we suffer from SAD?
The most widely recognised theory is that a seasonal decrease in light causes SAD by limiting how well a part of the brain called the hypothalamus can function. There are three key things which are affected by this:
- Our melatonin production – a hormone which makes you sleepy, produced in higher levels by SAD sufferers when sunlight is limited.
- Our serotonin production – affecting mood, appetite and sleep. Decreased serotonin is linked strongly to depression and often occurs seasonally.
- Our circadian rhythm (the body’s clock) – usually regulated by sunlight patterns, this can be disrupted in winter causing SAD symptoms.
Decreased light can affect all of these systems, so it is important to get the most of the day. However, this is not the only theory…
Hypersomnia (excessive sleeping) affects up to 80% of SAD sufferers. Paired with the increased appetite that is typical of this disorder, many have speculated an evolutionary explanation.
Historically, a scarcity in food throughout winter has driven ancient humans to eat less and sleep more, storing calories where possible. Could symptoms of SAD be an enduring instinct from these times, similar to a desire to hibernate?
Aside from sunlight reduction, the widely regarded catalyst for SAD, seasonal change can bring about other intensifiers for depression.
Cold weather can leave us stuck indoors making exercise regimens harder to stick to. Motivation killed, we would sooner snuggle up on the sofa than keep plans. Though this may feel right when it’s dreary outside, the long-term effect of skipping the usual gym, jog or brisk walk can lead to a low mood. Where possible don’t let the cold keep you indoors.
This is likely to be why SAD is more common in older people as they may be affected by mobility issues impacting their ability to get out and about. If this is affecting you, try researching community schemes which help you get to the activities you enjoy. From national charities like AgeUK to smaller local schemes, help is always available. If you know an older person who might be struggling, lend a hand and you could have a great impact.
Be sure to wrap up warm when you do venture out – Winter flu and colds won’t do anything to help a low mood. When you are already suffering the effects of SAD, the last thing you need is your health to worry about. Look after yourself and seek help from your GP, friends and family.
There are plenty of steps you can take to ease the symptoms you may be experiencing.