Have you ever noticed yourself feeling a case of the winter blues? We all feel down from time to time, especially during the cold and dark periods of the year where getting outdoors can be difficult. If you spend the months between autumn and the start of spring struggling with sadness and malaise, you could be experiencing Seasonal or the milder Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD or S-SAD).
Thankfully, regardless of how severely you are impacted, there are some steps you can take to mitigate the symptoms. First, let’s take a look at what SAD actually is.
What is SAD?
While feeling down in the darker months of the year is quite common, there is a difference between feeling sad and feeling SAD. Sometimes known as “winter depression” or “winter blues”, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a seasonally-recurrent major depressive disorder that is typically linked to the amount of sunlight hours a person is exposed to.
Hormone levels and moods change as the amount of daylight decreases, which is why people start experiencing SAD as early as September all the way through to March or April, with symptoms commonly peaking in December and January. SAD affects anywhere from one in three to one in 15 UK residents, with women more likely to experience symptoms, while S-SAD impacts around 21% of the population.
According to NHS, symptoms of SAD include:
- A persistent low mood
- A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
- Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
- Feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
- Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
- Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
People who experience Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder (S-SAD) will experience similar or identical symptoms, but may not find them as debilitating.If you are struggling with symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, you should visit your general practitioner. Learn more about SAD from NHS, how to find local GP services near you on NHS Choices, and how to speak to your GP about mental health from the Mental Health Foundation.
How to Deal With SAD
There are a few different treatment options available for people experiencing SAD. Before you invest in a light therapy box or start taking supplements, speak to your general practitioner, who will be able to help you find an approach that works best for you. They will likely ask you to make some of the following changes:
Light Therapy (also known as Phototherapy)
When it’s overcast and rainy, it can be difficult to get the amount of daylight you need, especially since standard light bulbs don’t quite match the intensity of the sun. Enter the light therapy box, a light designed to mimic the intense brightness and spectrum of sunlight, typically available with a rating of 10,000 lux.
Light therapy boxes are best used early in the morning for a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes daily. Keep the light near your face and at eye-level, but avoid looking directly at it. Some people like to read the paper or eat breakfast while using their lamps.
After a few weeks, if you don’t notice a difference, you can increase the time you spend in front of your light box up to 60 minutes. Make sure you only use certified light boxes and carefully follow the directions that come with your particular lamp for maximum effectiveness.
While light therapy is safe to use and has a very high success rate (around 80% according to Anxiety UK), some people do experience side effects, including:
- Eye strain
Typically, these side effects are harmless and will subside after the first week. However, certain medications can make you photosensitive and some people have poor reactions to light therapy, so speak to your doctor before beginning light therapy to determine if it is the right course of treatment for you.
Counselling & Medication
Speaking to a therapist can be combined with other approaches to create an effective treatment plan. With regular sessions, mental health professionals can help provide you with the tools to overcome the worst of your SAD, whether that means emotional homework or a prescription. It can take some time to find a therapist that you click with and an approach that works for you, so start your search early, make use of the resources made available by organizations like NHS, Anxiety UK, and the Mental Health Foundation, and try not to get disheartened if it takes multiple tries.
You may not feel like it when it’s cold and rainy (or worse), especially when you are feeling down, but the best thing you can do is get outside and get moving. Maximizing your exposure to sunlight is key to combating SAD.
If you’re finding it difficult to get out of the house, break it down into small, easy-to-accomplish steps and increase your efforts slowly. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day. Instead, make an effort to try again, and start small—increase the amount of sunlight available to you indoors where possible by leaving curtains open and cutting back branches, stand outside in your back garden for a few minutes each day, and gradually work your way up to a 30 minute walk.
Take Vitamin D
With the low levels of sunlight winter has to offer, you may need to seek out other sources of vitamin D. Supplements can help, but speak to your general practitioner or pharmacist before you start taking them to ensure there are no interactions with other medications you are currently on. They may also recommend you include a magnesium supplement, which can improve your body’s ability to absorb vitamin D.
In addition to supplements, you can incorporate vitamin D rich foods into your diet. According to NHS, this includes:
- Oily fish – such as salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel and fresh tuna
- Red meat
- Egg yolks
- Fortified foods – such as most fat spreads and some breakfast cereals (check the labels)
Illuminate the Indoors
While not as effective as sunlight or a certified phototherapy lamp, turning on bright lights can help you feel more awake when you’re not outdoors and even improve your memory. Look for light bulbs that are 100 watts or equivalent, and remember to include dimmer switches so you can lower the level of brightness in the evening, such as:
Shop our full selection of 100 watt equivalent LEDs.
The Bright Side
After the buzz of the winter holidays subsides, it can be hard to get through the long stretch of annual darkness that this time of year brings, but warm weather and longer, possibly sunnier days are just around the corner. If you are struggling with SAD and need help, don’t be afraid to lean on your family and friends, or to reach out to medical professionals.
Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be perceived as such.