What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and how can it be treated?

Winter brings a lot to look forward to, from cosy nights in to lots of festive cheer, but the cooler months are also dreaded by people across the country, with many wondering why winter can be so depressing.

The answer is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is believed to affect around two million people in the UK and can cause severe symptoms of depression that last for months.

As we head further into autumn and the nights begin to get darker, more and more people will start to experience the symptoms of SAD.

We spoke with Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, who explained to the Mirror why SAD occurs and gave her best tips for combating it.

What is SAD?
SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder and is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern.

The disorder is also sometimes known as “winter depression” because it is commonly associated with the colder months, however there are two types of SAD.

Fall-Onset, which is the type that is known as “winter depression”, is when symptoms can begin in the late autumn and are usually at the most severe during the winter. This is the most common type of SAD.

There is also a type called spring-onset or “summer depression”, which is when the symptoms appear during spring and summer months.

Explaining what causes SAD, Dr Elena Touroni told the Mirror: “SAD is particularly prevalent in winter as we get less light and less Vitamin D in the winter months.

“As many keen sunbathers might already know, the ‘sunshine vitamin’ helps regulate our mood. This is because it plays a role in the release of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin.”

Dr Elena also spoke about the type of people likely to be affected by SAD, revealing that the disorder is more common among women.

She said: “SAD tends to be more prevalent amongst females – four out of five people with SAD are women.

“But beyond gender, in my experience, people who are more likely to experience SAD are those who are already vulnerable to emotional instability.”

Warning signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are a number of symptoms to look out for when it comes to identifying SAD, including:

  • A persistent low mood
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • Sleeping for longer and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Weight gain and craving carbohydrates
  • Feeling lethargic
  • Irritability.

How can SAD be treated?
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that SAD should be treated in the same way as other types of depression, which can include treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy or antidepressants.

The symptoms of SAD can be tough to handle, but as well as treatment from your GP, Dr Elena explained that there are some simple ways that you can combat the effects of the disorder.

Firstly, she recommended exposing yourself to as much daylight as possible, saying: “In the winter months, it can be tempting to stay indoors, but lack of light is linked to low mood. Prioritise getting outside, even if it’s just for a half-hour walk around your local park.”

She also recommended moving your body every day, explaining: “Exercising releases feel-good hormones which provide a natural mood boost. The body also becomes better at managing the stress hormone, cortisol.”

Another tip to help with SAD is to start each day with a “mindfulness meditation” which Dr Elena says “helps you get a better idea of what emotional state you’re in that day so you can plan your day in a way that is sensitive to that”.

Creating a “self-soothing kit” could also help when you’re feeling low or anxious, Dr Elena said. “Fill it with items you find comforting, using each of your senses e.g. a soft blanket, a scented candle, soothing herbal teas, a notepad to journal thoughts and so on.”

Dr Elena’s final recommendation was to get therapy for your Seasonal Affective Disorder, adding: “Therapy can help you challenge the negative thought patterns which can exacerbate symptoms and develop a tailor-made plan to help you cope better with your mood shifts.”