Winter blues: Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

by Sarah Graham
Friday 24 October 2014
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The clocks go back this Sunday (26 October), a signal for us all to accept that the summer is definitely over. As the days get shorter, darker and colder, it can be tempting to build yourself a nest under the duvet, snuggle up with a supply of hot chocolate and steaming bowls of comfort food, and hibernate until the more pleasant weather returns. Or, better still, book a holiday to somewhere tropical and stay there until April.

Sadly, for most of us, hibernating or migrating to warmer climes are not an option, and getting through the British winter months can be a real struggle. If you notice that you feel especially low around this time of year, you may be affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) - a seasonal form of depression.

There are a number of theories about what causes SAD. One recent study, reported by the BBC, used brain scans of people affected by the condition and concluded that it is caused by seasonal differences in the production of serotonin. 

Lead researcher, Dr Brenda Mc Mahon, told the BBC: "The serotonin transporter (SERT) carries serotonin back into the nerve cells where it is not active - so the higher the SERT activity, the lower the activity of serotonin."

When the nights grow longer during the autumn, the SERT levels increase, resulting in diminishing active serotonin levels.

She explained: "Sunlight keeps this setting naturally low, but when the nights grow longer during the autumn, the SERT levels increase, resulting in diminishing active serotonin levels."

We asked two RSCPP therapists to explain how SAD may affect you, and some of the simple steps you can take to boost your mood this winter.

Registered Counselling Psychologist Julie Scheiner  says that reduced exposure to sunlight may be a contributing factor in SAD. "Light stimulates a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls mood, appetite and sleep. These things can affect how you feel."

She adds: "In people with SAD, a lack of sunlight and a problem with certain brain chemicals stops the hypothalamus working properly. The lack of light is thought to affect the production of the hormone melatonin, the production of the hormone serotonin and the body's internal clock, which regulates several biological processes throughout the day." 

If you are affected, SAD may make you feel lethargic and low in energy, mood and libido. However, there are a number of natural ways you can boost your mood during the darker season. Registered Clinical Psychologist Sarah Lack says: "Doing more, even though you don't feel like it, will stave away low mood in winter, especially social contact (of any kind - it doesn't have to be deep and meaningful!)"

Doing more, even though you don't feel like it, will stave away low mood in winter.

She recommends "cardiovascular exercise, bracing and regular outdoor walks no matter what the weather, avoiding comfort eating, and doing things which feed your sense of worth, value and achievement."

Besides natural boosts, Julie adds: "your first port of call may be to contact your GP to perhaps have a course of anti-depressants, which can help lift your mood." Therapies for SAD may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), or therapy which uses light boxes to literally brighten up your outlook.

"Either way don't despair as you are not alone, and SAD is easily remedied with the right help," Julie says.


Finding support


You can find out more about symptoms and causes of Depression, including how to find a therapist. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 27 October 2014