WAs the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, some people notice that they have less energy and don’t feel as positive as usual. While these feelings may be temporary for some, about one in three people constantly struggle during the fall and winter months with a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Symptoms of SAD can range from mild to severe, but typically include:
- Bad mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in things you used to love
- Change in appetite (usually eating more than usual)
- Change in sleep (usually too much sleep)
- Feel worthless
Researchers are not yet clear on what causes SAD, but it is likely to be complex and multifaceted. Some research suggests that this could be due to a dysfunction of the hypothalamus (the area of the brain that regulates biological processes such as mood, sleep, and appetite) or an excessive production of melatonin (a hormone that controls our sleep-wake cycle, which is produced by the pineal gland in the brain). Some researchers believe it could also be due to a disturbed circadian rhythm – the natural internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle.
Of course, other factors can also come into play. For example, some research has indicated that women may be more likely to suffer from SAD – although due to a lack of specific research it is not. certain that these gender differences really exist and, if so, why.
Some people notice that their symptoms start to improve as the seasons start to change and spring approaches. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of things people can do during the winter months to help them cope with their symptoms.
For people with SAD, the main recommended treatments include psychological interventions (such as talk therapy) or taking medication (such as an antidepressant). Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (which focuses on challenging our distressing thoughts and changing our behavior) is an effective treatment for SAD.
In one study, researchers found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was associated with significantly lower depression when followed a year later compared to light therapy (another treatment sometimes used for SAD, which involves sitting in front of or under a box that emits a very bright light, for about 20 to 30 minutes or more daily).
A key part of CBT is supporting patients in a technique called behavioral activation, which aims to improve mood by encouraging people to structure their day and engage in meaningful and enjoyable activities – a hobby, for example. Research also indicates that certain antidepressants (especially SSRIs) may be particularly effective in treating symptoms of SAD.
Light therapy is also currently being investigated as a treatment for SAD. As this is still an emerging therapy, research regarding its effectiveness as a stand-alone treatment for SAD remains inconsistent. But one study has shown that light therapy can be an effective way to manage symptoms of SAD when used in conjunction with antidepressants. Light therapy is generally not available on the NHS, so if you want to try it, make sure you only choose a product that is medically approved for the treatment of SAD – and follow the directions for use or see your GP. .
Besides seeking professional help, there are a few other things people can do to help them cope with SAD during their day.
Getting outside and enjoying the natural daylight is something that people with SAD can do for themselves. According to a study, getting more natural light during the day may help improve symptoms. The study researchers asked participants to either take an hour-long daily walk in the open air or use a low-dose artificial light box for 30 minutes a day for a period of one week.
Participants who took a daily walk showed significant improvements in all depressive symptoms, compared to those exposed to artificial light. While it’s not clear exactly why daylight can improve symptoms, it can still be an easy and effective thing people can do to improve their mood every day.
Research also shows that lifestyle factors (such as exercise levels and diet) can play an important role in the onset and management of depression. Regarding SAD in particular, some evidence suggests that exercise (alone or in combination with light therapy) may improve symptoms.
Again, it’s still not clear why this is the case. But research has indicated that it may be linked to changes in our circadian rhythm. A review that looked at the impact of exercise on depression found psychological (such as exercise providing a distraction from negative thoughts and a way to socialize) and physiological (such as changes in levels) benefits. endorphin or cortisol).
While there are many things people can do to manage the symptoms of SAD throughout the winter months, it is important to see your GP about symptoms and feelings, especially if symptoms do not appear. are not improving or the disease becomes difficult to manage.
Harriet Bowyer is Lecturer in Applied Psychology / Clinical Psychologist at the Caledonian University of Glasgow. This article first appeared on The conversation
If you are having difficulty or think you might benefit from mental health support, please talk to your GP and / or try contacting support organizations such as The Seasonal Affective Disorders Association, The Samaritans Where Campaign against living miserably (Calm)