What is seasonal affective disorder?

Recognising the signs and symptoms of SAD

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is sometimes known as the winter blues or winter depression. It’s a mental health condition that mostly affects people during times of year when they are exposed to little natural sunlight.

SAD can make you feel low, tired, lethargic or as though you are wishing your time away. It can be difficult to wake up in the morning, or stay up late after dark. People who work nights or irregular shifts or nights can also experience a similar kind of depression.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include low mood and energy levels. You may feel less interest in life, less sociable, have a lower sex drive or feel more irritable. SAD can increase someone’s appetite for comfort-foods and make you feel tired, lethargic, stressed or depressed.

SAD is primarily linked to a lack of exposure to sunlight, although the causes of the condition are not yet fully understood. One theory is that lack of sunlight has an impact on part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which regulates our body-clock’s wake-sleep cycle, or circadian rhythms.

The hypothalamus produces two important hormones.

Serotonin is the feel-good hormone that regulates our mood an appetite. Less exposure to sunlight can reduce the levels of serotonin produced

Melatonin is the sleep hormone. It’s thought that SAD can stimulate more melatonin to be produced, making people feel sleepier.

People who regularly work night shifts can experience similar depressive or stress symptoms to SAD, because their working hours disrupt their body’s circadian rhythms. Melatonin is secreted during hours of darkness, so active shift work can inhibit its production, making it difficult to sleep, despite tiredness.

Help and support with the symptoms of SAD

If seasonal affective disorder is affecting your mood, home or work life, talk to your GP. You may be encouraged to create a routine for waking up in the morning and including exercise in your day, to help prevent a downward spiral. They may suggest lightbox therapy – which simulates the natural light of longer days.

If your mood is too low for you to feel you can pull yourself up, you may be prescribed an SSI form of antidepressant, or a talking therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

If you’re struggling with SAD, depression or feel alone, you can turn to us. You don’t need a diagnosis, referral or appointment to access mental wellbeing support and friendship at Make a Difference.

Moodgym for SAD at Trident House

Make a Difference offers free access to Moodgym, an interactive Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) coaching programme to help people manage SAD symptoms of depression.

Drop into Trident House to find out more about Moodgym and for a free token to begin the programme online.