Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Here in the Southern Hemisphere, it is that time of year when we say goodbye to Summer and welcome Autumn where the days start getting shorter, darker earlier and colder as we transition into Winter. Along with the big jackets and cold mornings can come a mood disorder with a seasonal pattern – Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which many of us would recognise as the “winter blues”.

SAD is a type of depression that relates to changes in seasons and generally begins and ends around the same time each year. Typically, symptoms start to emerge around Autumn and continue into the Winter months, however, the opposite pattern has also been observed, with some people experiencing symptoms that begin in Spring or Summer.

Symptoms specific to the Winter onset of SAD include:
– Irritability
– Low mood
– Tiredness or low energy
– Hyper sensitivity to rejection
– Heavily feelings in arms and legs
– Oversleeping
– Weight gain
– Changes in appetite

Symptoms specific to Summer onset of SAD include:
– Depression
– Difficulties sleeping (insomnia)
– Changes in weight
– Loss of appetite
– Agitation or anxiety

The good news for the millions of people around the world who suffer from this disorder year after year, is that there is actually quite a lot you can do about it. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Recognise the problem

This may seem simple enough, but recognising what the issue is can be half the battle. The early signs of SAD can be subtle (low energy, fatigue, oversleeping, increase in appetite, inability to concentrate) and can be easily attributed to many other causes. Catching these symptoms early can put you ahead of the game.

2. Get more light

There are a number of ways to do this. Research has shown that going for a walk in the morning is the most effective time for you to get light. Bring more light into your home. Make at least one room in your home the bright room. If simple measures like these don’t work there are light fixtures available specifically geared towards people who suffer from SAD.

3. Get up early, keep active and schedule pleasant events for yourself.

Key elements of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for SAD is behavioural activation, challenging negative thoughts and engaging in pleasant activities that lift your spirits. Getting out and scheduling pleasant activities not only gives you a sense of mastery but causes your brain to release chemicals that improve your mood!

Getting sufficient exercise can help reduce anxiety and stress, both of which can worsen depression.

4. Nutrition.

Eating fatty foods high in sugar or carbs can contribute to lowered mood and feeling sluggish. Try switching to foods that are unprocessed and high in protein. Not only will it reduce cravings, but it will also give you more energy and help you to feel more positive. Adding Omega-3 rich foods into your diet can also help maintain healthy levels of Serotonin and Dopamine (the feel good chemicals).

5. Meditation and Mindfulness

Practicing meditation or mindfulness is a fantastic way to reduce stress and improve your overall sense of well being. Whichever form of meditation you prefer, do it.

6. Get educated 

Being forewarned is being forearmed.

7. Sleep
Try to get your body into a regular sleeping routine. Going to sleep and waking at the same time each day will help get your body into a healthy sleep schedule. Aiming to get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night will make a significant difference. If you’re having trouble sleeping, try cooling down the room, covering or removing electronic gadgets that emit light and staying away from caffeine past 10am.

8. Consult a professional

If your symptoms are impairing your functioning or your ability to carry out your day to day activities, it may be time to consult a professional. The best first point of call is your local GP, as they can refer you on to the most appropriate service.

9. Is there a role for medications?

If the symptoms are severe in nature, a medically trained professional may recommend medication. Since any medication that is administered for the treatment of SAD is prescription only, you will need to consult your GP, who will be able to make a thorough assessment and treat accordingly.

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