Are you SAD? How to combat being SAD!

Are you SAD? How to combat being SAD!

3 Dec 2018
Stefano Mirabello Medical Reviewer
Pharmacist / B.Pharm

A sad woman is sitting on the floor with her hands on her head.

Image source: Canva – Are you SAD?

What is SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), more commonly referred to as the “Winter blues”, is a mental health condition related to changes in the seasons. SAD is thought to be linked to the reduced light which winter and the seasonal change brings. The clocks have changed and the hours of daylight have reduced. The darker evenings lead more people to feel anxious, depressed, exhausted, or to have a lack of energy or motivation.

Don’t brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own. You can take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

In most cases, SAD symptoms appear during late autumn or early winter but go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Sometimes, but not as often, people can have the opposite pattern, with symptoms that begin in spring or summer. In either case, symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.

Signs and symptoms of SAD may include:

  • Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless or tearful
  • Feelings of low self-esteem or guilt

Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include oversleeping, changes in appetite, weight gain and having low energy. Symptoms specific to summer-onset SAD, sometimes called summer depression, may include trouble sleeping, poor appetite, weight loss, agitation or anxiety.

In some people with bipolar disorder, spring and summer can bring on symptoms of mania or a less intense form of mania, and autumn and winter can be a time of depression. Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that involves fluctuations in your thinking, mood, and behaviour. If you have bipolar disorder, you may experience periods of depression or mania.

The signs and symptoms of depression of seasonal affective disorder should be taken seriously. As with other types of depression, SAD can get worse and lead to problems if it’s not treated. These can include:

  • Social withdrawal
  • School or work problems
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Substance abuse
  • Other mental health and depressive disorders such as anxiety disorders or eating disorders
  • Suicidal thoughts or frequent thoughts of death
  • Other health problems

How is SAD caused?

The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but some factors that may come into play include:

  • The reduced level of sunlight in autumn and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. The decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression
  • Serotonin, a feel-good chemical (it contributes to wellbeing and happiness) in your brain affects how you feel and might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a reduction in your serotonin levels and may trigger depression
  • Changes in the seasons can disrupt the balance of your body’s level of melatonin, which normally plays a role in maintaining your sleep patterns and mood

Risk factors of SAD

Seasonal affective disorder is diagnosed more often in women than in men and occurs more frequently in younger adults than in older adults.

Certain factors may also increase your risk of SAD, including:

  • Family history of suffering from SAD
  • Having major depression or bipolar disorder
  • Living further from the equator. SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months

What can you do to make SAD better?

Small changes in your daily habits can make huge differences in how you feel:

  • Try to get as much natural sunlight as possible. Have a little walk outside at lunchtime, make your work and home environments as light and airy as possible, sit near windows when you’re indoors and take plenty of outdoor exercise in natural light
  • People with SAD generally crave carbs. Instead, opt for a healthy well-balanced diet, such as fruit and veggies, potatoes, whole grain bread, rice and pasta, or other carbohydrates, or foods with a good mix of healthy fats and proteins, such as chicken, fish, beans and pulses. These healthier options can help boost your energy levels
  • If you’re feeling stressed look at taking up meditation, yoga, or tai chi or find activities that make you feel relaxed and improve your mental health. Listening to relaxing music, having technology-free breaks (especially from social media), taking a hot bubble bath or just introducing periods of time just for you to be can help with feelings of sadness
  • Interact with friends or family members. Interacting with your loved ones can boost your body’s production of oxytocin. Go to a movie, grab a coffee, or go on a blind date. Studies have shown that retreating from others can worsen depressive symptoms

Sometimes however you may need treatments recommended by a healthcare professional to help prevent complications, especially if SAD symptoms are getting worse:

  • Talk with your Doctor or mental health professional If you have depressive symptoms that interfere with your daily life. Talk with your Doctor who can discuss the treatment options available. They may prescribe you SSRI antidepressant medications that can help regulate the hormones in your brain that affect mood
  • Light therapy can help some people with their moods. This involves sitting by a special lamp called a light-box, for around 30 minutes to an hour each morning
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be beneficial for people with seasonal depression. The right therapy can help you curb negative thoughts, attitudes, and behaviours. For many people, CBT can be as effective at treating SAD as light therapy or antidepressants, but without any risky side effects
  • Talk therapy, which is also known as psychotherapy, is what mental health professionals use to communicate with their patients. The purpose of talk therapy is to help people recognise the issues that cause emotional distress. Join a support group for depression. Sometimes, just talking about your sad feelings and going through self-help and self-care techniques can help you feel better
  • Consider natural remedies, but always check with your Doctor or Pharmacist before taking any natural remedies. Some remedies can interfere with prescription medication or cause complications to existing medical conditions. Melatonin supplements may help you regulate your sleep pattern if it has been disturbed by SAD. Also, there is some evidence that St. John’s wort may help alleviate mild depressive symptoms

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