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Shining a light on Seasonal Affective Disorder

Shining a light on Seasonal Affective Disorder
Some people get depression when seasons change. We look at SAD and find out what you can do about the 'winter blues'.

As the nights draw in and there is a distinct chill in the air, many people find their mood changes. Some feel excited hibernating with a DVD box set in their cosy sitting room. Others, however, find themselves feeling depressed and sad as the weather becomes colder and the nights get longer. Kerri Virani shines a light on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and finds out what you can do about it.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that affects some people when the season changes. Most sufferers experience it during the winter months, when there are fewer daylight hours.

SAD is more common in countries where there are changes to thetemperature and light from season to season, and is less common in countries where it is sunny and bright all year round. In the UK it usually affects people between September and April, although some people suffer ‘reverse SAD’ – where it affects them during the summer months.

What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The main symptom of SAD is depression – this includes feeling sad, hopeless, irritable and lacking energy. Some people may feel anxious, they might not want to see anybody and find they are more likely to get ill. Lots of people also find they eat and sleep more when they are affected by SAD.

Usually their mood improves when the seasons change and they may find themselves feeling very cheerful during the spring and summer.

Why does Seasonal Affective Disorder happen?

It is not known for certain, but medics think a lack of sunlight during the winter months can cause us to:

  • Produce too much melatonin – this is a hormone that makes you feel tired.
  • Produce too little serotonin – this is a chemical that regulates our mood; too little serotonin is linked to feeling depressed have a disrupted body clock.

What can make Seasonal Affective Disorder worse?

Sometimes when people experience any type of depression or low mood they can ‘self medicate’ to try to feel better. One way some people do this is to drink alcohol – having a few drinks can sometimes lift your mood and make you feel better in the short term if you are feeling low.

However, because alcohol is a depressant, in the long run it can make you feel worse, especially if you start to depend on it. If you suspect you are drinking too much, or relying on alcohol or drugs to manage your SAD, speak to your GP. They will be able to tell you about all the local support that is available to you.

How can I beat Seasonal Affective Disorder?

If you think you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are treatments that can help – so visit your GP. These treatments are mostly the same as are used to treat depression, and can include: Antidepressant medication. ‘Talking treatments’, such as counselling. Lifestyle changes such as managing stress, getting enough exposure to sunshine and taking exercise.

Light therapy’. This could involve using a ‘lightbox’, a very bright lamp which mimics sunlight which you sit beside for up to an hour each day during the winter, preferably in the mornings. You could also use a dawn-simulating alarm clock, which gradually lights up your bedroom in the same way as the sun would in the summer months. Most people will notice an improvement within one week if light therapy is going to work for them.

Can I get a lightbox on the NHS?

No, unfortunately you won’t usually be able to get one on the NHS, so you would need to buy or hire one. It is possible to rent one by the month, which is a much cheaper option if you only need it for two or three months. Sad Shop and Lumie allow you to try their equipment before you decide to rent or buy.

Note: check with your doctor before getting a lightbox because people with certain eye problems or on specific medication cannot use them

So how can I get more exercise on a budget?

You may have read our previous article on low-cost exercise (including playing footie or using adult gym equipment in parks). Here are some extra ways to soak up some rays of winter sunshine, boost your serotonin levels and have fun:

Outdoors

Our Parks – a network of parks across London which hold free one-hour exercise classes, from yoga to box fit to boot camp. For more info visit Our Parks.

Foraging – this is where you go out into the greenery and pick edible fruit, herbs, plants and berries (such as blackberries). It is becoming increasingly popular – even if you live in a city, it is possible to find places to forage. Start with a group and you will discover what is safe to pick and eat – don’t eat anything you are unsure of. Urban Harvest has details of free forages in London on their website:

Ice skating – cities are now dotted with winter ice rinks. Not a budget idea but this is a great way to exercise (and also perhaps a good place to go on a date). Here are the London rinks for 2015.

Indoors

Sexual activity can burn around 100 calories, it has been discovered. Even better, sex can reduce stress, and cuddles and hugs can reduce our blood pressure. Just remember the condoms.

Or what about trying something a bit different, like indoor rock climbing?

To find out more about SAD, search for ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ on: Mind or NHS.

For SAD lightboxes visit: Sad Light Hire or Lumie.

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Kerri has worked as a Health Trainer at Terrence Higgins Trust and is now their editor. She is particularly interested in the advances being made in HIV treatment and prevention. She also loves football, knitting and baking.

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Shining a light on Seasonal Affective Disorder

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