Are you feeling SAD?

Daylight savings has ended. The cold and darker months are drawing in. No matter what you do, you feel like you can’t shake off this dread, apathy, and numbness. You may be experiencing SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is something that has become more known in recent years. There are some misconceptions about it, much like any other psychological disorder, but for those of you who still aren’t aware let me do my best to explain what it is, and if you may have it yourself…

As you could probably guess, SAD is grouped amongst the depression-based conditions. For those who experience the disorder, the main symptom is that of long-lasting depressive episodes, but only within a certain time of year. Of course we all feel a bit down when the weather get’s cold and wet, but those who have SAD experience an often debilitating disruption to their emotional wellbeing.

It’s a fairly recent discovery, and was first listed in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), released in 2013. The American Psychiatry Association, of which the DSM is published by, lists the symptoms as follows:

  • Feelings of sadness or depressed mood
  • Marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite; usually eating more and craving carbohydrates
  • Changes in sleep; usually sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue (despite any increased sleep)
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death and suicide, or attempts at suicide

Now for those of you who have had a depression diagnosis, this all sounds fairly familiar. However, with SAD these symptoms spike at certain times of the year; Winter typically, though some rare cases experience this in the Summer months also.

This is thought to be because of the changes in light levels that we experience in the darker Winter months. Light is considered to be an exogenous zeitgeber, or in layman terms, an external factor that has an impact on our internal body clocks. When light hits the inside of our eyes, this triggers a series of actions in our central nervous system that releases hormones.

Serotonin is one of those hormones, and is one of our feel good neurochemicals. Psychiatrists administer drugs (i.e. SSRIs) to help those with clinical depression increase their ability to use serotonin in their brain. As there is a lack of light in the colder months, we all experience less serotonin. However, there are some people who are very sensitive to this, and so develop seasonal affective disorder.

Because of a lack of light, we also experience an increase in melatonin in our systems during Winter. This is the hormone that helps us to feel sleepy, and in those with SAD there tends to be increased levels. So you can see how these symptoms tend to manifest.

So if light is such a big deal, should people with SAD just spend more time being near lights?

Well, kind of…

Amongst other treatments, like anti-depressants and therapy, one key way of relieving symptoms is to use specifically designed light-boxes. This equipment helps those with SAD gain a boost of light they would not normally get in the Winter. Typically at the start of the day, you spend some time looking into and being around this light box, so that it increases the serotonin levels within you. This helps to wake you up, and feel better throughout the day. You can pick them up fairly easily, and it is recommended that you use them for about 15-20 minutes every morning.

To be diagnosed with SAD in the UK, you have to first seek out your GP and talk to them about the issues you are experiencing. Symptoms of SAD can be misinterpreted for other physical symptoms (hormone based ones like Hypothyroidism), so it’s important to talk to your doctor about what it could be that you are experiencing.

Typically an official diagnosis comes after at least a couple years of having depressive episodes, so that a pattern is established. The NHS states that you need to have experienced depression around the same time of year, and that those periods of depression are followed by periods without. So if you think that sounds like you, please reach out for help!

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