Feel crappy in Winter – could it be SAD?

Written by Donna Roberts, Master Practitioner of NLP, TLT & Hypnosis, Soul Realignment Practitioner and Miriam’s admin guru.

Get ready for winter 2014

This winter has been particularly cold and wet, apparently the coldest and wettest in 30 years. Each year we all go through a natural process of semi-hibernation or withdrawing from all usual activities. However, for some people their experience of winter goes beyond the normal pattern of withdrawal and becomes something worse. For some people, winter is hell. They find themselves feeling really low and flat, unhappy and irritable. If this is something you have experienced this winter and even in past winters, you may be suffering a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is S.A.D.?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a sub-type of depression, which only affects people during the winter months. It is also known as Winter Depression, and generally the sufferer starts to feel better in the Spring, as the days warm up, get longer and nature blossoms. It is more common in women than in men, and onset typically occurs in young adulthood.

What are the causes of S.A.D.?

The exact cause is unknown, however, depression is more common during the winter months, and at higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, leading doctors to believe that a lack of sunlight creates altered brain rhythms, leading to depression in some people. Generally, it is less common in Australia than in the sub-polar countries.

Most doctors think that a number of factors trigger S.A.D. including

  • genetic responses to sunlight – some animals such as bears hibernate during winter, and research suggests that reduced levels of sunlight also affects humans, with some people more susceptible than others
  • circadian rhythm – this is the “internal body clock”, located in the brain, and helps the body to regulate sleep/wake cycles. This regulation is dependant on sunlight, and so in some people, the shorter days of winter may disrupt their circadian rhythm and alter their brain function
  • altered brain regulation – melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain and body, and triggers sleep. It is produced in response to reduced light, and daylight switches off the production. The shorter hours of daylight may encourage greater production of melatonin, which in turn may trigger S.A.D.. Melatonin is also responsible for jetlag.

What are the symptoms of S.A.D.?

  • depression – which could include low mood, feeling sad, a sense of hopelessness, low motivation, irritability, low tolerance
  • anxiety – can manifest as irritability, which can in turn have a negative impact on relationships
  • lethargy – a lack of energy and enthusiasm
  • dietary changes – an increased appetite for carbohydrates, which would include lots of lovely, stodgy, winter puddings perhaps! Treacle sponge, sticky date pudding, bread and butter pudding …. Mmm yum! Don’t forget the custard!
  • Weight gain – damn those carbs!
  • Hypersomnia – the need for more sleep than normal
  • Loss of libido
  • Withdrawal from others – the human form of hibernation
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • The pattern follows the seasons – symptoms start in Autumn, get worse in Winter ease in Spring, and are completely gone in Summer

What treatments are available for S.A.D.? 

Self help options

  • Increased sunlight exposure – try to get outside every day, particularly if you work in a windowless place, even if it is only to eat your lunch. You can also increase the amount of sunlight that enters your home – keep the curtains open during the day, cut back bushes that block the light entering, and if possible, install skylights
  • Get some exercise – if it’s not raining, rug up and get outside for a walk. Regular exercise is an effective treatment for depression and anxiety
  • Look after yourself – make sure your sleeping and eating habits are good, and avoid excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Money and time permitting, a holiday in warmer climates is an option, although the UK is generally not a good choice!

Light therapy (phototherapy)  – this is the controlled use of artificial light that mimics the light spectrum. Daily sessions may range in duration from 20 to 60 minutes depending on the severity of the symptoms. Exposure to light therapy in the morning, around 6am,  seems to be the most effective in resetting the circadian rhythm. For most Australians, however, an increase in exposure to natural sunlight is relatively easy to achieve, and this should be tried before resorting to light therapy.

Medication – antidepressant drugs are an option, although they can take 2-3 weeks to get into your system before symptoms are alleviated, and for some people, the side effects are quite awful. Try the self-help or light therapy options first before considering if you need this option, and always talk to your GP when deciding which is the best course of treatment for you.