Feeling a tinge of gloom as the darker months roll in is not unusual. But for people with seasonal affective disorder – or SAD – autumn and winter can bring a significant bout of depression.
It’s estimated around 7 per cent of the Irish population are affected by SAD, according to the Health Service Executive (HSE), with symptoms including low mood and energy, feeling hopeless and tearful, sleep disruption, appetite changes and loss of interest in activities you normally enjoy.
As Dr Ali Zawwar from Lloyds Online Doctor Ireland explains, the exact cause is “not fully understood”, however “we do know it seems to run in families, suggesting it’s partly genetic”, he adds.
“And it’s believed to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter daylight hours of autumn and winter,” Zawwar explains. “It’s thought a lack of sunlight may stop the brain’s hypothalamus working properly. This may increase the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy.
“It may also affect serotonin production – the hormone that affects your mood, sleep and appetite, and is linked with feelings of depression.”
The question is: if this pattern sounds all too familiar and you’re dreading another bout of winter blues, are there steps you can take now to help you cope?
Self-help measures go a long way
“The good news is, there are many ways you can help yourself to improve your SAD symptoms, and for most people self-help is all that is required,” says Belfast-based Dr Paul Van Der Westhuizen, specialist digital clinician at Medichecks.
“For example, you can take walks during the daytime to maximise your sunlight exposure, bump up your physical activity levels, or create healthy sleep routines. It’s also important to seek the support of friends and family – after all, we’re social animals that desperately require social contact.”
Zawwar agrees self-help measures play an important part. “As well as lifestyle choices that generally promote wellbeing, like exercising regularly and reducing stress, try to get as much natural sunlight as possible – by taking a brief lunchtime walk or even sitting near windows when indoors. This will help reduce melatonin levels and boost serotonin, one of the brain chemicals that affects mood.”
Let there be light
Zawwar adds: “Light therapy is another treatment option, which uses a special lamp called a light box to stimulate exposure to sunlight. Although, it’s not clear how effective this is.”
Similarly, Van Der Westhuizen says “dawn simulating alarm clocks” are another option people could try.
These products are widely available to purchase, and while – as Zawwar noted – clinical evidence on their effectiveness may be limited, many people with SAD report finding them helpful.
Speak with your doctor
If your symptoms are severe, however, remember you don’t have to struggle alone.
“You should talk to your doctor if you notice you are experiencing some of the symptoms of SAD and feel you are struggling to cope,” says Zawwar. “Your GP can carry out a mental health assessment by asking you about your thoughts, mood, behaviour, lifestyle, sleeping patterns and eating habits.
“Like other forms of depression, talking therapy and antidepressants can also be used to treat SAD, sometimes in combination.”
Van Der Westhuizen says: “You may not always realise how low in mood you are, especially if symptoms come on gradually, so it sometimes takes a friend or relative to give you a nudge to seek help. It’s easy to push them away or dismiss these nudges, but try to listen to those around you who are doing their best to help.”
As well as checking in with your doctor, he highlights that online resources and helplines – such as Samaritans and Samaritans Ireland – are always available if you need to talk in confidence.
Van Der Westhuizen adds: “If you feel you are struggling to cope, especially if your symptoms are beginning to affect all areas of your life, it’s important to seek help.”