Winter blues? You may have Seasonal Affective Disorder

Businesswoman in formalwear looking through office window on rainy day

There is a lots to love about the colder months: comfy sweaters, hot drinks, open fires and the first hint of snow.

But this time of year doesn’t strike a magical note in everyone’s heart. If you are feeling a bit off, it could be a subtle sign you have seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

This strand of depressed mood rears its ugly head as autumn fades into winter. Specifically, SAD is a short-term depression that occurs during the colder months, coinciding with fewer hours of daylight.

In my experience, there is usually an underlying mild-to-moderate anxiety and depression which is compounded by the lack of light and an extreme dislike for winter.

If this describes you, never fear. Much like regular depression, SAD is treatable.  

How do I know it’s the change in seasons causing me to feel this way?

While ‘traditional’ depression usually comes with sleeping problems and reduced appetite, SAD is associated with a yearning to ‘hibernate’. People affected have a strongly increased desire to sleep and eat, with a craving for carbohydrates, comfort food and sweet treats very common for SAD sufferers.

The other main indicator that SAD is at work is the timing of these feelings: when does the depression set in and fade away? Most commonly, SAD is a winter-related malady that recurs each year. In the northern hemisphere, it usually starts between September and November and lasts until March or April.

Diagnosis for SAD can usually be made after two to three consecutive winters with the symptoms. Do you remember if you felt this way two or three years back?

How do I treat Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Antidepressants may be helpful as a treatment for people experiencing SAD. These work by increasing the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter thought to have a positive influence on mood, sleep and eating.

We also have strong evidence that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a treatment for anxiety and depression in general, can help seasonal depression and may prevent it recurring in the future. Aside from prescribed medication and CBT, exercise can aid in recovery as it boosts mood, improves sleep and could be a social activity.

You can also boost your mood by eating vitamin-rich foods and trying to get as much sunlight as possible (yes, even though it’s freezing outside.)

Of course, the first step is to recognise you are affected. The combination of treatments and preventive measures best suited for tackling your symptoms will be highly individual and should be discussed with a professional.

Whether you’re struck down by ‘seasonal blues’ or SAD, the most important thing to remember is this: you don’t have to wait for winter to pass to start feeling better.

Lee Grant is clinical director at Efficacy