Seasonal Affective Disorder

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What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that people experience at a particular time of year or during a particular season. It is a recognised mental health disorder.

Most of us are affected by the change in seasons – it is normal to feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer, or to find that you eat more or sleep longer in winter.

More Detail on SAD

However, if you experience SAD, the change in seasons will have a much greater effect on your mood and energy levels, and lead to symptoms of depression that may have a significant impact on your day-to-day life.

You struggle to cope with life, work and everyday tasks.

Most people experience SAD during the winter. Less commonly, some people find they experience SAD in reverse – with depressive symptoms occurring in summer.

SAD is most common in countries like the UK where there are large changes in the weather and daylight hours in the different seasons.

SAD can also worsen symptoms of existing depression that you experience throughout the year.

It's like having your own portable black cloud.
What Are Common Signs of SAD?

SAD has many different symptoms. You do not need all of them to be experiencing SAD. If a doctor gives you a diagnosis of SAD, it is likely to be because you have been experiencing a number of these symptoms in the same season for at least two or three years:

  • lack of energy for everyday tasks, such as studying or going to work
  • concentration problems
  • sleep problems – such as sleeping for longer than usual or not being able to get to sleep
  • depression – feeling sad, low, tearful, guilty, like you have let others or yourself down; sometimes feeling hopeless and despairing, sometimes apathetic and feeling nothing; see Mind's guide Understanding Depression for further information
  • anxiety – tenseness and inability to cope with everyday stresses
  • panic attacks
  • mood changes – in some people, bursts of hyperactivity and cheerfulness (known as hypomania) in spring and autumn
  • overeating – particularly 'comfort eating' or snacking more than usual
  • being more prone to illness – some people with SAD may have a lowered immune system during the winter, and may be more likely to get colds, infections and other illnesses
  • loss of interest in sex or physical contact
  • social and relationship problems – irritability or not wanting to see people; difficult or abusive behaviour
  • greater drug or alcohol use
How Can I Help Myself Cope With SAD?

Many people with SAD develop self-help strategies that enable them to manage the condition themselves, either on their own or with other treatment. You may find these suggestions helpful:

Make the most of natural light

We know that being outdoors throughout the winter doesn’t cure SAD because people who work outside also experience SAD symptoms.

However, it is still worth taking the opportunity to be exposed to natural light when possible.

Small changes – like going outdoors around midday or on bright days, wearing sunglasses a bit less (if it is safe to do so) and having pale colours within the home to reflect light – can all be useful.

Avoid stress

Many people find that they are more likely to experience stress in winter.

If you find this time of year difficult, try to plan ahead to reduce your number of stressful or difficult activities during this time.

Plan the more stressful events for summer where possible, particularly major ones such as changing jobs or moving home.

Take advantage of the times when you feel well in summer to prepare for the winter – for example, by buying Christmas presents or stocking up your kitchen cupboards. If you can, try to make more spare time to rest, relax or do pleasant activities in the winter. Perhaps pamper yourself physically with a massage, or learn a relaxation technique to help you unwind. Our section on How to manage stress has further suggestions.

You may want to discuss your symptoms with your employer to try to minimise the pressures on you in the winter months. This is a very personal decision and not all people experiencing mental health problems choose to disclose them at work. Equally, your employer has responsibilities to assist you, including making 'reasonable adjustments' where appropriate. See Mind's guide How to be mentally healthy at work for more information.

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