Tips For Dealing With Seasonal Affective Disorder
We’re getting into that time of year where it is colder, darker, and generally more grim outside. It’s common for us to feel a little bit low and a bit depressed. And if that’s something you go through, you’re definitely not alone and can be a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It’s something I go through every September to October, and then usually again in January. So I am bringing you some of my best tips for dealing with seasonal affective disorder.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is sometimes referred to as “winter depression” because that is when it tends to be more common but it can affect people in both summer and winter.
It’s a form of depression that you’ll experience during specific seasons or times of year. I already mentioned for me it is common from September into October and then again in January. And that has been consistent for a few year now.
Symptoms Of Seasonal Affective Disorder
I am going to quote directly from the NHS website here. 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
decreased sex drive
Generally, low mood, feeling sluggish or lethargic and finding it a bit harder to feel happy about things cover a lot of the symptoms in one way or another.
I personally go through inexplicable bouts of feeling guilty in ways that I don’t usually experience in summer, which I assume is associated with SAD.
Everyone who is affected by it will experience different symptoms at differing severity so it is important to bear that in mind.
Before we get too far ahead, I want to mention that as this is a form of depression, it is also a serious mental health condition.
Therefore if you are experiencing any of these symptoms or know you are experiencing SAD, please do not hesitate to speak to a professional. You can speak to your GP, or a therapist or reach out to a charity such as CALM, or Mind.
Definitely speak to someone. Nothing in this blog post is medical advice, and absolutely 100% of the time, a qualified professional will be best placed to help you.
All I can do here is provide some basic self-help tips that either I have used before myself or have researched online. And none of that comes into the realm of treatment or diagnosis or any kind of substitute for speaking to a qualified professional.
Tips For Dealing With Seasonal Affective Disorder
Bright Light Therapy
Bright light therapy is where you allow yourself to be exposed to light that mimics daylight. If you look at the Wikipedia page, it does also mention spending time outside, but for the purposes of this post we’re focusing on indoors.
A 2017 study referred to bright light therapy as a go-to treatment for SAD.
In the UK, you can get daylight bulbs that are bright and the right colour to have the same effect on your body as exposure to sunlight.
In terms of colour, the warm white (yellow-ish) tinge that most indoor lights have is 1500-2000 Kelvin. Daylight bulbs designed to mimic sunlight are more pure white in colour with a temperature range of 5,000 to 6,000 Kelvin.
Part of the theory behind is that this exposure means you produce less melatonin (sleep hormone) and more serotonin (happiness hormone) which means you are less sluggish, less lethargic, and your mood improves.
I tend to sit in that bright light for 20-30 minutes first thing in the morning to help me start my day on the right note.
But it is important to play around with different timings and durations and see what your body responds best to.
Light Alarm Clock
Light alarm clocks, also sometimes referred to as wake-up lights, sunrise alarms or sunrise simulators – are also thought to help.
I have been using one since 2015 and it has made a huge positive difference to how I feel when I wake up.
The way it works is that the light brightens gradually over a set period of time to help ease you into waking up.
An audio alarm clock of course hits you very suddenly, and you can feel groggy or grumpy when you are awoken.
The light alarm brightens gradually to allow your eyes to adjust and gradually bring you out of a deep sleep, and then if you use an alarm like mine, the audio alarm gradually starts to fade in. Mine is birds chirping.
And that means you wake up smoothly, and gently.
I start my working day at 5 AM so I am up very early and this has had a massive impact on how I start my day. Regardless of sleep quality and quantity, I pretty much always wake up feeling energised and refreshed.
Vitamin D Supplements
Some studies have suggested a vague and fairly loose link between vitamin D deficiency and symptoms of depression.
Most recently, a 2022 study in Critical Reviews In Food Science ANd Nutrition found that vitamin D supplementation equal to, or exceeding 2000 individual units per day may help reduce depressive symptoms.
They did however note that results had a low level of certainty, so it’s not definitively proven.
Vitamin D is normally produced by your body’s exposure to sunlight, so when it is darker and you are outside less, your body isn’t producing as much and you are more likely to become deficient.
Studies around nutrition supplements tend to be more limited than a full-scale clinical trial would be so they might not be as reliable.
But I have been taking 5000 IU of Vitamin D a day for a while. I haven’t tracked my changes closely enough to say whether it has had a definitive positive impact.
But it definitely hasn’t had a negative impact for me.
I do a lot of work on my mental and physical health so there are also other things that might be contributing here too.
Saying to just “suck it up” and “deal with it” isn’t entirely helpful. But we don’t control the weather and we can’t stop time.
So, to quote Game of Thrones, winter is coming.
But I have always found that some more thorough preparation and planning for the darker and blaker winter months does help me out a lot.
And there is plenty to look forward to:
- Guy Fawkes night (if you’re in the UK)
- Thanksgiving (if you’re in the US)
- Diwali (if you’re Hindu)
- The build-up to Christmas
- Me and my mum’s birthdays are both in November too
I also try to use that time of year to travel, rather than in summer. So I try to get some winter sun on me. And with some luck, I will hopefully be spending a lot of the first couple of months of 2023 in a corner of Asia where it will be much warmer and sunnier.
So hopefully I will be coming back when it starts to get brighter and milder here too.
Those are all specific big events but there are a lot of small touches to look forward to as well:
- One of my friends loves pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks
- Another says their favourite autumn and winter evening is cuddled up with their partner under a blanket watching a movie
- I know a lot of people enjoy Christmas markets too
And if you get sad at a specific time of year, whether summer or winter, it can help to also plan things that you would normally look forward to around that. Hence I prefer to travel in winter. It might also mean finding a new hobby or activity that you’ll enjoy.
It’s a great way to help make that difficult time feel more enjoyable.
So brace yourself, and prepare yourself.
Change Your Routine
When I used to work in an office, in the winter months I would get in when it was dark, I would stay indoors at lunch because I was cold, and I would leave when it was dark.
So I wouldn’t be outside in daylight from one Sunday afternoon until the following Saturday morning – almost a full week. No wonder my health and my mood tanked.
Even if it is cold or cloudy or raining, as long as it’s safe for you to do so, get outside at least for a little bit. And try to make this a priority.
You might need to move some other things around and change your routine but it is worth doing. And then find a way to stick to it.
Once you find a routine that works for you and you stick to it as best you can, you’ll be able to look after yourself without needing to put too much thought or mental energy into it.
As a lifelong introvert, it pains me to say this. But when you are feeling low, the company of other people can help lift your mood.
So it is worth trying to socialise more.
Friends and family are obvious choices.
If you have a small social circle or are a bit of a loner (like yours truly) then maybe going out and doing something like a group fitness class would be a good start.
Or take up a hobby that involves meeting people – I know someone that started badminton recently and they have made a lot of friends doing so.
You can also checkout meetup.com or eventbrite.com for local interest groups and events that you might want to go to.
Sometimes you need that boost once or twice a week to help lift you.
It might not lead to deep, lifelong connections or anything like that but putting you in a position where you chat to people can definitely help.
I have put it off for a while but I am also starting to do it now, and if I can do it, honestly anyone can.
This is way outside the scope of what I am qualified to talk about so I will keep it brief and general.
If you do speak to a qualified professional, then depending on your circumstances and severity of your symptoms, alongside self-help tips like I have mentioned, they may also recommend further treatment.
This can include therapy such as psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy, or anti-depressants.
Your doctor, your GP or a therapist will be able to help talk through treatment options.
How Common Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
I’m not sure about calling it “common” but I think it’s fair to say SAD isn’t uncommon at least.
One study suggested it affected around 20% of Irish people, and another estimated just under 25% of people in Alaska have SAD.
In the US, one study estimated that 6% of the population had SAD, and a further 14% had generalised low mood in winter which researchers described as “winter blues”.
So it does affect a lot of us.
And it does seem to be more prominent in places that see more dramatic differences between summer and winter.
In the UK, the peak of summer will typically see bright daylight from 5 AM to 9:30 or 10 PM, alongside plenty of sunshine and temperatures around 20-25 degrees.
By contract, in the middle of winter daylight is 8 AM to 3 PM, it is much duller and cloudier, and temperatures will typically around 0 to 5 degrees.
If you are in somewhere like Florida or live along the equator you probably won’t see the same kind of seasonal shift.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have SAD. It just means that one of the environmental circumstances that make it more common is likely to be less of a factor.
I hope the above self-help tips for dealing with seasonal affective disorder are helpful. But if it is something you are dealing with, please do not hesitate to get help. You can speak to your GP, a mental health or medical professional, or a therapist and they’ll be able to provide you with specific and actionable support.
If you want to talk through any options, or if you have any questions, please do feel free to get in touch too.