Written by: Toni Foot
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that is linked to the changing seasons. As with other forms of depression, symptoms usually include:
- Feelings of despair
- Loss of interest in social and daily activities
- Feelings of lethargy
- Increased sleeping patterns
In contrast to other forms of depression, sufferers of SAD will experience changes in their mood and symptoms as the year goes on. Usually symptoms begin to become apparent in the autumn and progressively worsen until the middle of winter. As the spring months bring better weather and more sunlight hours the symptoms reduce, often completely disappearing until the following Autumn.
What causes SAD?
As with other forms of depression, it is difficult to identify exactly what causes SAD. However exposure to sunlight appears to have a significant influence on sufferers of SAD because of the body’s natural circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is the daily pattern your body follows; in particular it is what helps you to stay awake during the day and sleep at night. There are two key hormones involved: melatonin and serotonin. When sunlight is absent, your body produces melatonin to make you feel sleepy. When exposed to sunlight, your body produces serotonin (which affects your mood, appetite and sleep). During the winter months sunlight hours are reduced which means that your body does not have enough sunlight exposure to maintain effective circadian rhythms, leading to symptoms of SAD.
Although many studies support the link between sunlight exposure and SAD, there are other possible contributing factors:
- Psychological influences: including the way you think about things and how your brain functions.
- Past experiences: trauma, abuse or neglect.
- Genetic factors: it is possible that the tendency to develop depression can run in families.
What treatments are available?
- Light therapy has shown to offer short-term relief by increasing the levels of sunlight exposure. This involves using a light box each day, usually in the mornings, to help regulate your circadian rhythm. Although these are available to buy privately, make sure you speak to your GP to make sure it is an appropriate treatment for you.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an effective talking therapy that helps individuals to adjust the way they think about and respond to situations they encounter. Therapists can help you to develop coping strategies that enable you to deal with difficult circumstances more positively.
- Antidepressants can be an extremely effective short-term treatment that enable sufferers enough relief from their symptoms to be able to access longer-term treatments such as CBT more effectively.
I think I have SAD: what do I do now?
The first step is to contact your GP. You will be asked a number of questions regarding your mood and how the changing seasons affect you. Your GP may also examine you for signs of other causes for your symptoms. Due to the seasonal nature of SAD it may well take some time for a diagnosis of SAD to be reached (a diagnosis often requires evidence of symptoms over two years). However, it is important to seek help as soon as you feel it is necessary as there are treatments that can improve your experiences.