Mental health campaigner Anna Williamson looks at the symptoms and treatment of SAD, and how to stay happy as the seasons get colder
Bring sunlight back into your life this winter with expert advice on boosting your serotonin levels and avoiding winter depression.
As the warm summer days start to fade, and the chilly pangs of autumn and winter begin to settle in for the long haul, many of us can genuinely ‘feel’ the change in seasons. For some people this can be accompanied by some rather unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, as it’s often known, is a ‘thing’. Some reports suggest that as many as one in three Brits are affected by it each year, with women more than 40% more likely to experience symptoms than men.
Symptoms of SAD
This mood disorder, which typically strikes around autumn or early winter and ends in spring, is symptomatic of the daylight hours reducing and a lack of sunlight. Light affects the amount of the brain’s ‘happy hormone’, serotonin, which helps to regulate our mood. Put simply, summer sun keeps our serotonin levels high and the lower levels of natural light in winter cause serotonin levels to decrease (therefore our mood drops).
Feeling sluggish, needing more sleep, craving stodgy carbs, feeling moody or down, withdrawing socially – all are symptoms of SAD. More than half of adults say their overall mood is worse in the winter, compared to summer, with 40% of people suffering with fatigue in the winter months. The links between weather and wellbeing are strong – and they’re really rather noticeable, too.
How much happier and more carefree do people seem when the sun is shining? Cut to winter and people shuffle around with head down, in layers of clothes and rushing to get out of the cold, moaning about the weather, traffic, news. On the whole, it’s a noticeable downward shift.
Years ago, having been diagnosed with (and treated successfully for) General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I found myself feeling the familiar pangs of angst again, as though a dark cloud had descended over me. Each time I revisited my doctor he’d talk me through my symptoms and I’d adopt helpful coping techniques. A couple of years in, he mused that I only ever visited him when the winter nights were drawing in – he was right. SAD was prevalent.
Help for SAD
The good news is that this is something we can treat ourselves. Over the years I’ve adopted mood-boosting strategies such as using a specifically designed SAD ‘light box’ every morning to simulate sunlight and absorbing as much natural daylight as possible (going for a walk at lunchtime helps). I also ensure I don’t give in to the carb cravings and instead consume as much fresh fruit and vegetables as possible, and eat vitamin D- and omega 3-rich mood-boosting foods such as salmon and eggs. And I try to stay as active as I can – it’s a great natural mood enhancer.
If your mood takes a nosedive during winter, don’t despair. You could see your GP to rule anything more serious out and give my trusted tips a go. Embrace the beauty of the changing seasons, find the positives and remember, before long the sun will shine again.
Anna is a bestselling author, counsellor, broadcaster and life coach as well as an ambassador for Mind. Her latest book is available now, How Not to Lose It: Mental Health Sorted from Scholastic.