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Seasonal Affective Disorder – Are You Suffering from SAD?

seasonal affective disorderIt is that time of year again. The nights are darker, the air is colder, the leaves are turning. Yet for many people, this change of season signifies more than just the coming of winter. It can be related to a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder.

[Not sure if you are or aren’t depressed? Try our free quiz, ‘stressed, depressed, or both?’].

What is Seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, known as SAD, is a type of depression that affects around half a million people every winter. Here in the northern hemisphere it hits between September and April, most commonly between December and February.

SAD tends to affect younger people, especially those in their twenties. And it is thought to affect more women than men. Also note that some people have ‘reverse SAD‘, the same thing but caused by the onset of summer not winter.

For as many as 7 per cent of the population SAD is a debilitating illness that prevents day-to-day functioning without medical treatment. But generally, SAD is a mild condition that causes discomfort but not extreme suffering. This milder type of SAD affects an estimated further 17 per cent of the UK population.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Symptoms vary from person to person, as with all psychological conditions. But the following symptoms are often found in someone with SAD.

According to the NHS, a diagnosis of SAD here in the UK can be made after two or more consecutive winters of symptoms. So if you do feel you may have SAD, it is worth noting down when your symptoms occur in relation to the calendar year. This is helpful for when you discuss your depression with your doctor or a psychologist.

What causes seasonal affective disorder?

Like all forms of depression, the exact cause of SAD is not fully understood.

Am I stressed or depressed online quiz

But it is thought to be linked to the body’s reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of the year. The idea is that this causes a biochemical imbalance in the brain.

Biological causes of SAD

One cause of SAD is linked to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain stimulated by light. The hypothalamus controls mood, appetite, and sleep, and can affect the way you feel. In someone suffering from SAD, the lack of sunlight prevents the hypothalamus from working properly, which affects the production of certain hormones.

A second chemical cause is melatonin, which is a hormone that affects the way we sleep. It is produced by the pineal gland which helps us fall asleep. People with SAD produce much higher concentrated levels of melatonin in the winter months, which links directly with the symptoms of sleepiness, lethargy and lack of energy.

Thirdly, serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, sleep patterns and appetite. It is also a neurotransmitter, responsible for transmitting messages between your nerve cells. Sunlight is known to affect the production of serotonin and therefore lack of it can mean that messages between nerve cells are not being transmitted effectively. This is common with people with SAD, resulting in low mood and changes in appetite.

Finally we have the circadian rhythm, which is a psychological process helping to regulate your body’s internal clock. This lets you know when to sleep and when you should be awake. A reduced level of sunlight can help disturb this pattern, and as a result of this sleeping and waking patterns are often disrupted which are often linked to signs of depression.

Other causes of this diagnosis

SAD can also be linked to genetic and family factors. The chemical imbalances that affect those with SAD may be passed genetically from our relatives. Personality and psychological factors (such as if you are usually an anxious person) may also affect the likelihood of experiencing SAD.

And social factors can play a contributing factor to those with SAD, such as a social life outside working hours in the winter months. Or whether one has a solid circle of friends to offer support at all.

What is the treatment of seasonal affective disorder?

The most common form of treatment for SAD is light therapy, which is effective in 85 per cent of cases. This involves exposure for up to four hours a day to a very bright light, which must be at least ten times as intense as ordinary domestic lighting.

Taking supplements of melatonin is also an approved treatment for SAD, as is ionised air administration.

With regards to therapy and counselling options, cognitive behavioural therapy is proven to be very effective in treating those with SAD. Its focus is on changing the way one thinks and behaves, creating a more positive outlook and helping you reach your goals.

Conclusion – there is hope

SAD can be a debilitating condition to live with, and it can make the winter months seem never-ending. But various treatments and counselling therapies are available to ensure a more positive winter season.

Ready to stop being sad every winter? We offer a team of hand-selected and highly rated therapists who can help with seasonal affective disorder, working out of comfortable central London offices and online. On a budget? Access our listings site for registered therapists across the UK ranked by users.  


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Blog Topics: Depression

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    Dr. Sheri Jacobson


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