How to cope with seasonal affective disorder


1st Jan 2015 Wellbeing

How to cope with seasonal affective disorder

Every winter thousands of people across the world struggle with seasonal affective disorder, a depressive condition that can lead to feelings of despair, loneliness and anxiety.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a depressive illness that affects hormones, sleep and appetite. In the UK, seasonal affective disorder is experienced by around three per cent of the population, while up to 20 per cent say they identify with feeling the “winter blues”.

The signs of SAD often begin in autumn and are at their most severe during the winter months.

Symptoms include a persistently low mood, loss of interest in everyday activities, feelings of despair or worthlessness, a lack of libido, needing to sleep for longer, craving carbohydrates and gaining weight.

The exact cause of SAD is not yet understood, but it has been linked to a reduced access to sunlight during the shorter days. This lack of light may impede the effectiveness of the hypothalamus which then disturbs the body’s production of melatonin, serotonin and the internal body clock.

The Royal Institution offer a detailed description of the condition below:


What makes SAD different to depression?

“Traditional” depression is not tied to the seasons and instead affects patients throughout the year. SAD is strongly associated with an instinct to hibernate.

Patients with SAD often report a desire to sleep more than usual and eat more fatty, comforting food.

More rarely, people with SAD report feelings of heightened anxiety during the summer months as well as, or in place of, the winter blues. 

A SAD diagnosis is normally not made until the patient has gone through three consecutive winter seasons with the symptoms. 


What treatments are available?

The treatments for patients with SAD vary widely and GPs will make different recommendations depending on the severity of the condition. The good news is that SAD is highly treatable. Common treatments include:


1. Talking therapy

This could include counselling, or more practical therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

Early research suggests that CBT could be the most effective way to treat patients with seasonal affective disorder. One 2009 study compared the effects of CBT and light therapy treatment on people with SAD and found the two equally effective.

One year on from the treatment however, those patients who had undergone CBT were doing much better than those who underwent light therapy only. 

2. Light therapy

Many SAD patients say light therapy helps them enormously. The process involves sitting in front of a special lamp for anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour every day.

The glow produced from these light boxes is intended to replicate the natural sunlight that SAD patients are deficient in.

Unfortunately, this treatment is not available via the NHS but the Seasonal Affective Disorder Organisation recommends the best options on their website

3. Medication

In extreme cases, antidepressant medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors may be prescribed.

4. Lifestyle readjustment

Patients may be advised to simply change their lifestyle to get as much sunlight as possible, exercise more and work on managing stressful events in their life.


How can I support someone with SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder can hugely impact upon someone’s life, leaving them feeling very unwell for up to six months every year.

The symptomatic feelings of hopelessness and inclination towards isolation means that people with the condition may avoid friends and family, rather than reaching out to them.

The most helpful course of action is to encourage a person you suspect may have SAD to seek treatment.

In the meantime, you could help with household tasks and be sensitive about the level of demands you are putting upon them. Anything you can do to reduce practical burdens will be of use.

People with SAD may be more irritable than normal so it’s important to remain patient with them. Sometimes just being around to spend time with a SAD patient can be a huge help. It’s important to remember that as the condition is seasonal, they will start to feel better with time.