Tomorrow is the first day of December. A month filled with trips to Christmas markets, indulging in food and drink, present buying and spending time with loved ones. But for those living with SAD, the new month signifies darker nights and dropping temperatures, feelings of depression, increased anxiety and sleep problems.
I first realised I suffered with SAD during my teenage years. Around October of each year I’d start to feel decreased energy levels, feelings of sadness and an increase in social anxiety and panic attacks. I’ve put together this post, based on my research and personal experience, to help others with the same disorder.
What is SAD?
SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a form of depression that ebbs and flows with the colder seasons. Commonly shrugged off as the ‘winter blues’, SAD can be a seriously debilitating condition. Figures vary, but the NHS estimates that one in 15 people in the UK are affected, while another study claims around 6% of the UK population are unable to function properly due to the disorder.
What causes SAD?
While there’s no clear cause, triggers can include a decreased exposure to natural light, low levels of serotonin, high levels of melatonin, disruption to your body clock, changes to your diet and even traumatic experiences.
Is SAD just feeling sad?
While living with SAD can result in mood changes and increased sadness, SAD can also manifest itself in sleep problems, increased levels of anxiety, changes in libido, social and relationship problems and being more prone to illness.
So how can I cope with SAD?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with SAD. Each individual experiences different symptoms, meaning that what works for me may not work for you. Below I’ve listed some tips that I find help to alleviate symptoms. If you find your symptoms to be severe or recurring, you may need to combine these lifestyle changes with CBT or antidepressants.
1) Change your sleep schedule – During the winter months we only get around 8 hours of sunlight. By waking up earlier to accommodate the early sunsets, you expose yourself to more natural light, and give the illusion of longer days. Your circadian rhythm is affected by the Winter season, so exposing yourself to natural light first thing in the morning and artificial light with a SAD light in the afternoon/early evening can help to alleviate symptoms.
2) Go outside – Experts always preach the benefits of exercise for endorphin release. While I don’t dispute this statement, for those suffering with social anxiety and depression, it can be difficult just to even leave the house. Exposure to natural light, fresh air and a change in surroundings can still help with stress and anxiety. Having your morning cup of tea in your garden, taking your dog to the park or even dining al fresco at lunch will release your endorphins and expose you to Vitamin D.
3) Adjust your diet – Your symptoms could be made worse by your dietary choices. Increasing your intake of Vitamin D and Vitamin B12 can help fight fatigue, raise your mood, improve memory performance and support your immune system. You can take supplements, or adjust your diet by consuming more mushrooms, orange juice, fortified foods, meat and fish.
Low levels of serotonin is another possible trigger of SAD. You can naturally increase your serotonin levels by consuming more carbohydrates. Opt for complex carbohydrates to avoid a sugar spike, and increase your brain serotonin levels by eating foods rich in L-tryptophan, such as eggs and peas.
4) Tune in to your feelings – This tip seems obvious but it’s easily overlooked. Self-care is a buzzword thrown around a lot, often defined by an increased use of face-masks and painting your nails. But self-care is about tuning into your emotions, listening to your body and doing things that benefit yourself both physically and mentally.
Integrating your passion into your evening routine will have countless benefits. Go to the gym, watch a TED talk, write a blog post or even just make a new Spotify playlist. You get the benefits of an occupied mind, but you also get something tangible from your efforts.
5) Try alternative therapies – Light therapy can ease the symptoms of SAD by mimicking the effects of natural light. Do your research before you invest as they can be expensive. I currently use this one from Amazon once a day or as often as I remember.
CBT, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, is another option to consider. CBT is a talking therapy that addresses the problems you currently face to provide you a practical, tailored approach to managing your symptoms. However, CBT requires commitment with regular sessions and only addresses the current issues you may be facing, not any underlying issues.
What if this doesn’t help me?
If you find your symptoms to be quite severe, recurring, or extending beyond the winter season then don’t be afraid to seek help. Reaching out to a mental health charity such as Mind, talking with a councillor or asking your doctor for advice can sometimes be the best solution.
Winter can be a magical season, but it can also be one of the hardest. Remember to have patience with your loved ones, reach out to those around you and spread positivity this season and all year round.