Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

See also: Types of Depression

Many of us find winter depressing. It is hard to be enthusiastic and cheerful when it feels like it has been raining for three months, and that the sun will never shine again. However, for most of us, this is a temporary feeling. It does not usually last beyond a bit of a moan to someone else, or perhaps a cup of coffee with a friend.

Some people, though, find winter more difficult. For them, it means feelings of depression, tiredness and irritability that can last for several months. This is known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. This page discusses SAD, and explains how you can manage its symptoms, or help those around you to manage them and make it through to spring more comfortably.

What is SAD?

SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, is defined as depression that comes and goes seasonally. It is usually worse in winter, but there are some people who find that they feel worse in summer.

Symptoms of SAD

In line with many mental health problems, the symptoms of SAD are fairly non-specific. The only clue to ‘diagnosis’ is likely to be that they come and go seasonably. Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling depressed or low, and finding it hard to take an interest in things;
  • Tiredness, including needing to sleep for longer, and/or finding it hard to wake up in the mornings;
  • Being more irritable; and
  • A change in eating habits, particularly craving carbohydrates, often associated with putting on weight.

The Causes of SAD

There are a number of theories about the causes of SAD. The main one is that lack of sunlight affects the brain and prevents various hormones from being produced. These include serotonin, which affects your general mood, and melatonin, which affects your levels of tiredness and ability to sleep.

This seems quite a likely theory, because SAD is more common in northern countries, where the light levels tend to be lower in winter.

Managing and treating SAD

For many people, SAD can be managed effectively through lifestyle measures.

These include:

  • Getting plenty of exercise. It is worth scheduling regular exercise into your life, because that makes it easier to manage, especially when you are feeling down.  For more about this, see our page on Exercise.

  • Eating well. Try to avoid snacking, and eat healthy meals, with plenty of green vegetables. For more about this, see our pages on Diet and Nutrition.

  • Spending time outside during the day where that is possible—for example, by taking a walk at lunchtime or before going to work. It follows that your exercise should, if possible, be outdoors, rather than in a gym, although any exercise is better than none.

  • Sitting near windows when possible, so that you get as much natural light as you can.

  • Taking action to reduce your stress levels. For more about this, you may like to read our page on What is Stress? and our tips on dealing with stress.

Managing SAD at work

Most of us spend considerably more time at work than at home—and this is especially true of daylight hours during the winter.

If you are experiencing the symptoms of SAD, it is a good idea to tell your manager, because you may find that you work more slowly, or need more encouragement.

It may also be helpful to ask your employer or manager to help you make some specific adjustments in the workplace to improve your SAD. These might include an adjustment in your workload or tasks to reduce your stress, and moving to a workspace next to a window.

More generally, it is helpful to try to think positively about life. Focus on the good and try to avoid negative thought patterns. There is more about this, and how you can avoid negative spirals, in our page on Positive Thinking.

However, where lifestyle changes are not enough, there are a number of useful therapies. These include:

  • Light therapy, or exposing yourself to light that simulates sunshine. There are a number of ‘light boxes’ available on the market, many relatively cheap. The UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence says that there is very little real evidence to support their use. However, plenty of people swear that they are helpful. They are best used first thing in the morning.

  • On a smaller scale, some people find that dawn-simulating alarm clocks, which gradually lighten your room over a period of time, can be helpful. These mimic the action of daylight, so may help your body clock to set itself more appropriately.

  • Talking therapies, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy, may also be useful. These may help you to think differently about your situation and reframe it to a more positive outlook. These therapies are also used for depression more generally.

  • Anti-depressants may also be prescribed, particularly the class called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) because they affect serotonin levels, and therefore improve your mood. These are more likely to be prescribed in long-term and more serious cases of SAD, because they are thought to be most effective when started in autumn, before symptoms appear, and continued until spring.

Asking for help

If you think you may be suffering from SAD, especially if you are finding it difficult to cope with your symptoms, it is a good idea to speak to your doctor or GP. They will be able to help you understand your options and find the right treatment for you.

Helping Other People with SAD

Both at work and at home, you may find that you encounter other people with SAD. There are a number of ways that you can help them.

At home, for example, if this affects your partner, your child, or a friend, you can help by encouraging them to go outside and exercise. Particularly at weekends, suggest that you might both go for a walk, or a bike ride, or perhaps spend some time gardening. Making this a regular occurrence will help to increase their time spent in natural light and will also help with their general fitness.

You can also help to make sure that they eat well, perhaps by taking over the catering for a couple of months while they are feeling down.

Simple measures like making sure that curtains are open first thing in the morning can also help to increase the light levels in your house.

At work, especially if you manage someone with SAD, there are a number of actions that you can take to help both them and others:

  • Look at team workloads, and see if you need to do any rebalancing. Is the workload generally shared fairly evenly, and does everything really need to be done? If there is work that can be stopped, this is a good opportunity to do that.

  • Check the light levels in your workplace. Is there enough light generally? Have you maximised the use of and access to natural light? If necessary, move workspaces to give more people access to natural light, and organise more lighting.

  • Encourage everyone to get out of the office at least once a day.You might even go for a team walk at lunchtime to get everyone moving.

  • Be available to listen. Sometimes all anyone needs is someone to listen to them. Simply being available, and taking time to listen, can be enormously helpful to all of us—and if you can then take action to help as well, so much the better. For more about this, read our page on Listening Skills.

  • If you think that someone is struggling with SAD, encourage them to seek help.

This Too Shall Pass…

Above all, it is important to remember that the clue to managing SAD is in the name. Seasonal affective disorder is just that: seasonal. It will pass—even if it returns next year. If you suffer from SAD, make sure that you get the support that you need, and just hang in there until the spring.