Drizzly rain, dark clouds and that nip in the air. It is late summer/early fall in northern Europe. One could think that we are hurtling towards winter like a freight train. With the annual moving of the clocks only weeks away, the shorter days are upon us. Realistically there is a good chance that the warmer weather will return before fall really sets in but it gives a taste of things to come.
This time of year tends to be a time when, as a psychologist, I become a little busier as the more positive thoughts associated with summer tend to start fading with the amount of sunlight available. This is prime time for the onset of SAD, commonly known as seasonal affective disorder or the winter blues. It strikes like the clock for many people exactly as the weather starts to change and like clockwork, returns every year. Sufferers complain of limited energy levels, mood swings and low-level depression, usually from early fall through winter to the start of spring. In rarer cases, some can suffer in spring until early summer. For anyone afflicted with this, it can seem as if their life is attached solely to the changing of the seasons and some clients that I have known who battle with this say that eventually they become generally depressed during summer as well as they wait for the inevitable to arrive. Symptoms, however, usually build up slowly in the late autumn and winter months. Symptoms are usually the same as with other forms of depression:
Increased appetite with weight gain (weight loss is more common with other forms of depression)
Increased sleep (too little sleep is more common with other forms of depression)
Less energy and ability to concentrate
Loss of interest in work or other activities
Unhappiness and irritability
However, In order to meet the qualifications for a SAD diagnosis, according to the Mayo Clinic, an individual must be show the following:
- depression and other symptoms for a minimum of two consecutive years during the same season.
- depression-free periods following episodes of depression
- unexplained behavior and mood changes
SAD can sometimes become long-term depression. Bipolar disorder or thoughts of suicide are also possible.
No-one is really sure why SAD affects so many people but the most popular theory and the one most likely is that it is associated with reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of the year. This theory makes sense due to the fact that sunlight is known to affect some of the brain’s chemicals and hormones, though it is not yet clear how and what effect this has. One theory is that light stimulates a part of the brain called the hypothalamus which controls mood, appetite and sleep. These things can affect how you feel. It is thought that the combination of lack of sunlight with the inability to produce certain chemicals that stimulate the hypothalamus produces a situation that affects the production of the hormones melatonin and serotonin and consequently affects the body’s circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock, which regulates several biological processes during a 24-hour period. This could explain why many sufferers feel the need to sleep more and have trouble rising on dark mornings. However, research is ongoing.
More of us are affected by SAD than we realize. The NHS in the UK estimates that SAD affects around 2 million people in the UK and more than 12 million people across Northern Europe and it mostly affects people between the ages of 18-30 but there are also cases of children and pensioners suffering and under treatment too. These are just the ones who have sought treatment. As for treatment, the most common and effective for many people is the use of light boxes in light or phototherapy. These simulate the natural daylight needed to produce the hormones needed in the process described above. It calls for regular daily “sittings” under a desk lamp or wall-mounted light. Some even like to be woken by “natural light” alarm clocks that slowly flood the room with simulated daylight. These solutions are often combined with an exercise regime and an analysis of dietary requirements due to the fact that many sufferers have a tendency to gain weight. Talking therapies and counseling are often prescribed as well as stress management programs. Something that must be noted at this point is that even someone who is generally not depressed can still be afflicted with other symptoms associated with SAD. GP’s will also generally run blood tests to check for signs of thyroid issues as the symptoms are similar in some cases.