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  • Writer's pictureDr Heather Dyson

Thriving through the Seasons: Strategies for Living Well with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

The changing of the seasons can often affect our moods, for better or for worse. For many, the winter months can leave them feeling a bit low and struggling to find the same motivation they have during the brighter summer months. But for some, this can worsen and lead to a consistently low mood and can start to have a negative impact on your life. For some individuals, who are particularly impaired by their low mood during the winter months, they may be given a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression. This mood disorder affects millions of individuals around the world, causing feelings of depression, fatigue, and a general sense of hopelessness during the colder, darker months. In this blog post, we will explore the ins and outs of Seasonal Affective Disorder, its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options, and strategies for coping and thriving.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder? Seasonal Affective Disorder, commonly known as SAD, is a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. It typically starts and ends at the same times each year, with symptoms occurring during specific seasons, most commonly in the autumn and winter. Less commonly, some people experience SAD in the spring or early summer, known as "summer-onset SAD."

The symptoms associated with seasonal depression vary from person to person, but may include some of the following: -

  • Consistently low mood. This means feeling sad, tearful, hopeless, or having a generally low mood for most of the day and nearly every day.

  • An inability to feel joy or pleasure in activities you normally find enjoyable. This is sometimes called ‘anhedonia’ by mental health professionals.

  • Being low on energy and finding it difficult to motivate yourself.

  • Changes in your appetite or weight. This could be eating more or less, or a change in your eating habits.

  • An inability to concentrate, trouble focusing on tasks, making decisions, or remembering things.

  • Social isolation. You may not want to go out and see friends or family and may want to withdraw from the world.

  • A loss of interest in sex or physical contact.

  • Having suicidal thoughts or feelings.

  • Changes to your sleep patterns. You might be sleeping more or less, or may experience problems falling asleep or waking up in the morning.

  • Some individuals experience physical symptoms like aches, pains, and headaches.

What Causes SAD? While the exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, several factors contribute to its development. Some of the leading theories include:

a. Reduced Sunlight: The decrease in sunlight exposure during the fall and winter months can disrupt the body's internal clock (circadian rhythm) and affect the production of melatonin and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that play a crucial role in mood regulation. b. Biological Clock Disruption: Changes in daylight hours can disrupt the body's internal clock, leading to a variety of mood-related symptoms. c. Melatonin Levels: Reduced exposure to natural light can lead to an overproduction of melatonin, a hormone responsible for regulating sleep patterns, which can contribute to feelings of fatigue and lethargy. d. Serotonin Levels: Insufficient sunlight exposure may also lead to lower serotonin levels, which can impact mood and overall well-being. e. Genetics: Family history and genetics may play a role in predisposing individuals to SAD.

Diagnosing Seasonal Affective Disorder Diagnosing SAD involves a thorough evaluation by a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. The diagnostic process typically includes:

a. Clinical Assessment: The mental health professional will conduct a clinical interview to gather information about the individual's symptoms, history, and family history of mental health issues. b. Diagnostic Criteria: The mental health professional will assess whether the individual meets the diagnostic criteria for SAD as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). c. Rule Out Other Conditions: It's important to rule out other medical or psychiatric conditions that may be causing similar symptoms.

Treatment Options for SAD

The good news is that there are effective treatments available for SAD. The choice of treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and individual preferences. The most important thing to do is to ask for help. If you’ve been experiencing the symptoms above, then you should speak to your GP or a mental health professional. There are a range of different treatments for SAD and they will be able to advise you on which one will be best for you.

Talking therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Psychodynamic Therapy can also be helpful as a way to talk through your problems with an impartial yet compassionate professional. For more on talking therapies, you can see my blog post here.

Other common treatment options include:

Light Therapy: Light boxes are also another element of treatment for SAD. A light box mimics the light from the sun by replicating the full spectrum of colours that the sun creates (although we see this as a white light). This affects the chemical and hormone levels in your body, which can improve your mood. During light therapy, you sit in front of the light box or lamp for a certain amount of time each day, to reproduce the effects of natural sunlight and, hopefully, ease some of the symptoms.

Psychotherapy: Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and other forms of talk therapy can help individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours associated with SAD.

Medications: Antidepressant medications, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may be prescribed in severe cases or when other treatments are ineffective. Coping Strategies for SAD

In addition to formal treatment, there are several self-help strategies that individuals with SAD can employ to cope with their symptoms and improve their overall well-being:

  • Light Exposure: Maximize exposure to natural light by spending time outdoors during daylight hours. Opening curtains and blinds in your home can also help.

  • Lifestyle changes: Some people may benefit from changes in their lifestyle, such as an exercise regime. The benefits and mood-boosting advantages of exercise for mild depression and other mental health issues have been well-documented. Other lifestyle changes, such as trying to get as much sunlight as possible, getting fresh air and eating a balanced diet can also help alleviate some of the symptoms.

  • Social Connection: Stay connected with friends and loved ones to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness.

  • Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Practicing mindfulness meditation, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation can help reduce stress and improve mood.

  • Setting Goals: Establish realistic goals and engage in activities that give you a sense of accomplishment.

Thriving with SAD Living with SAD doesn't have to mean just surviving the winter months; it's possible to thrive despite the challenges the condition presents. Here are some additional tips for thriving with SAD:

1. Embrace a Holistic Approach: Thriving with SAD often involves taking a holistic approach to mental and physical well-being. This means addressing not only the symptoms of SAD but also nurturing your overall health. Here's how:

Nutrition: Maintain a balanced diet rich in essential nutrients. Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon, walnuts, and flaxseeds) have been associated with improved mood. Consider consulting a nutritionist for personalized dietary guidance. Exercise: Regular physical activity is a powerful mood booster. Find an exercise routine that you enjoy and can commit to, whether it's yoga, swimming, hiking, or dancing. Exercise releases endorphins, which can counteract depressive symptoms. Sleep: Prioritize good sleep hygiene practices. Establish a regular sleep schedule, create a comfortable sleeping environment, and avoid screens before bedtime to ensure restorative sleep. Stress Management: Learn and practice stress management techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation. Stress can exacerbate SAD symptoms, so keeping it in check is crucial.

2. Set Realistic Goals and Priorities: Thriving with SAD may require adjusting your expectations and setting realistic goals. Understand that some days may be more challenging than others, and that's okay. Break your goals into smaller, manageable tasks to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

3. Continued Professional Support: Even when you're feeling better, it's important to maintain your relationship with mental health professionals. Regular check-ins with your therapist or psychiatrist can help prevent relapses and ensure you have the necessary tools to thrive.

4. Explore Light Therapy Beyond Winter: Light therapy is a cornerstone of SAD treatment. While it's most commonly used during the winter months, some individuals benefit from using light boxes or lamps year-round. Discuss with your healthcare provider whether this approach might be suitable for you.

5. Plan and Enjoy Winter Activities: Rather than dreading the arrival of winter, plan enjoyable activities that you can look forward to. This might include:

Winter Sports: Engage in outdoor activities like skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, or even building snowmen. These activities can help you embrace the beauty of winter. Cozy Indoor Pursuits: Make the most of the indoor season by embracing the concept of "hygge." Create a warm and inviting atmosphere in your home with soft blankets, scented candles, and soothing music. Host cosy gatherings with friends and family. Creative Outlets: Explore creative hobbies like painting, knitting, or writing that you can immerse yourself in during the winter months.

6. Community Involvement: Stay engaged with your local community and social circles. Join clubs, volunteer for community projects, or participate in group activities that interest you. Social connections provide a strong support system and opportunities for personal growth.

7. Practice Mindfulness and Self-Compassion: Mindfulness meditation can be a valuable tool for managing SAD. It helps you stay present in the moment and cultivate self-compassion. When SAD symptoms arise, practice self-kindness and avoid self-criticism.

8. Share Your Experience: Consider sharing your journey with SAD with others. Whether through a personal blog, support group, or social media, sharing your experiences can help raise awareness and connect with others who may be going through similar challenges.

9. Keep a Seasonal Journal: Documenting your thoughts and feelings throughout the seasons can provide valuable insights into the patterns and triggers of your SAD symptoms. It can also serve as a tool for self-reflection and personal growth.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a challenging condition that affects many individuals, but it is manageable and treatable. By understanding its causes, recognizing the symptoms, seeking appropriate treatment, and implementing coping strategies, individuals with SAD can not only survive but thrive during the darker months. Remember, you are not alone in this journey, and help and support are readily available to help you regain your sense of well-being and enjoy all seasons of the year.

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