Are You SAD?
Could you be suffering with Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of low mood/depression which usually starts in the winter months when daylight hours decline and the clocks change.
As with depression, the severity of SAD symptoms can vary from person to person and can often depend on genes and geographics. Some people may be prone to SAD and others may be more likely to suffer from it depending on where they live in the world.
For many, the symptoms usually begin mildly at the start of autumn and get progressively worse through the darkest days of winter. Then, by spring or early summer when the days are lighter and brighter, the symptoms lift until you are in remission and you feel normal and healthy again.
Causes of SAD
While the exact causes of seasonal affective disorder are unclear, most theories attribute the disorder to the reduction of daylight hours in winter. The shorter days and reduced exposure to sunlight that occurs in winter are thought to affect the body by disrupting our circadian rhythms; this is our body’s internal clock which affects our sleep-wake cycle, mood, and appetite.
The longer nights and shorter days of winter can disrupt your body clock and you can feel low, lethargic, unmotivated and sleepy at inconvenient times.
Our brains and bodies are connected, like on a wiring loop, so our brains can help our physical feelings and our physical health can contribute to our mental health.
During winter are brains produce more melatonin, this is our sleepy hormone and sunlight during the day triggers the brain to stop melatonin production, so you feel more awake and alert. During the short days and long nights of winter, however, your body may produce too much melatonin, leaving you feeling drowsy and low on energy.
Our brain also produces less serotonin in winter; this is our feel-good hormone and neurotransmitter that helps regulate our mood. The reduced sunlight of winter can lower your body’s production of serotonin which may lead to depression and adversely affect your sleep, appetite, energy and memory.
Symptoms of SAD can include:
- Persistent low mood
- Loss of interest in normal everyday activities
- Mood swings, irritability, anxiety
- Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Feeling persistently tired, despite getting enough sleep
- Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
- Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
For some people, these symptoms can be severe and have a significant impact on their day-to-day activities.
How can we manage SAD?
Establishing and following a new routine for both the daytime and the night-time can help ease the symptoms of SAD. A familiar routine can be reassuring for those of us who experience anxiety. For example, if you’re working from home, set a daily schedule for yourself that allows for meals, breaks and opportunities to get out of the house. If you already have a fixed exercise regime, you may need to change the time of this to ensure you get out while it is still light outside rather than in the dark.
Exercise is something I prescribe regularly to the clients I see, but you don’t have to run a marathon to feel the benefits. Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health. Why? Firstly, it will decrease symptoms of SAD, anxiety and stress but it will also strengthen your immune system too.
Exercise shouldn’t be anything to fear so choose something you would like to do or already enjoy doing. For instance, if you are not a runner, you don’t need to set yourself goals to start running. Instead, think about what it is you would like to do such as walking, yoga, cycling or swimming.
During the winter months, it is vital that we get outside every day to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine. Sometimes, you may want to avoid going out, perhaps because it’s cold and it seems easier to opt for an exercise class on Zoom indoors instead. However, it is so important that you make time to get outside so your body can absorb sunlight.
Exercising outdoors and amongst nature such as in green open spaces or by the water has been proven to help our brain release more of our ‘happy hormone,’ serotonin.
Sunshine – Nature’s Vitamin D
In the autumn and winter when it’s still cold, try and expose as much skin as you can to the sun rays for at least 20-30 minutes a day; this could be just as simple as taking off your woolly hat and feeling the sun on your face and head. Doses of sunshine can boost your mental and physical health. UV rays from the sun help your body produce Vitamin D, which is important for your mood, bones, blood cells, and immune system.
Every single aspect of your physical and mental health is affected by sleep for better or worse. If you don’t get enough shut eye, it can escalate the symptoms of SAD, anxiety and depression.
Physically, research shows that people who lack quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick and not sleeping enough can prolong recovery too. Some people find it helps to listen to some meditation or calming music before going to sleep, to allow our brain some quiet time to slow down.
When you feel yourself getting anxious about uncertainties, bring your attention back into the present. This is a practice known as mindfulness. In this moment, realise that you are alright right now and it’s your thoughts creating a sense of uncertainty. Bringing your awareness into the here and now calms your brain and lowers your adrenaline levels. Many studies show that with repetition, practicing mindfulness or meditation can lead to a long term reduction of anxiety, low mood and worrying. I find the mindfulness practice called ‘grounding’ helpful and easy to do anywhere.
Reading has multiple benefits for your brain and mental health. On a physical level, reading stimulates your brain, improves connectivity, function and memory. Reading can even help you sleep better. Emotionally and mentally, science shows reading relieves stress.
Meditation and mindfulness are ways of thinking and calming our brains. Look at it as a relaxing massage for our brains! It does take practice to get the hang of it but your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing will truly thank you once you have mastered the art.
Meditation has proven to not only improve your mental health but also improve your immune system. There are so many free apps and podcasts available so try them out and find one that’s right for you.
Instead of focusing only on what is wrong at the moment, try and write down three things you are grateful for. Your brain does not always automatically notice these positive things and instead can always focus on the bad. By reminding the brain of what is positive, it can change the neurochemicals in your brain to increase those of happiness (serotonin) and decrease those of stress (cortisol).
While this is definitely a time of stress for many, it can also be a time of pulling together and showing kindness. Remember, we are all in this together and the pandemic affects all of us. Look out for and help your neighbours, family, friends, and co-workers as much as you can and where it is safe to do so. Helping others benefits your mental wellbeing hugely. Again, it will give your brain a sense of control and cause it to release peaceful, happy neurochemicals.
So, if you feel like you are struggling with SAD, anxiety, depression or stress. There are so many ways to help ease your symptoms. Your body and your thoughts are cleverly connected and compliment each other so by looking after one will most definitely affect the other.
And if you feel like you need to talk to someone, counselling can most definitely help too. Never struggle on alone.
I can offer you a free 15 minute, no obligation telephone call to answer any questions you may have about SAD and to see if I could help you.