It's not unusual for many of us to feel a little down in the winter. Going to work and coming home is often done in darkness, and when coupled with the horrible weather, it can be a miserable experience. For some of us, this will be a case of winter blues, but for others it can be the more serious seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD is a type of depression which occurs specifically during the winter months, usually developing between September and November and continuing until March or even longer. Symptoms are normally at their worst during December, January and February.
Who gets SAD?
Around two million people in the UK are believed to be affected by SAD, with around 12 million affected across Northern Europe1. It is more common in countries that don't have year-round sunshine, like those on the equator would experience. SAD generally develops between the ages of 20 and 30, but it can in fact develop at any age. It is also three times more common in women than it is in men.2
The exact causes of SAD are unclear. Sunlight has an incredible effect on the body, sending nerve messages to the brain from the eyes, which can affect chemicals and hormones in the brain, such as serotonin and melatonin. In turn this can affect our moods, and with less sunlight available, this change in hormone balance can lead to depression. Interestingly, between 13-17% of people who develop SAD have an immediate family member who is also affected. 3
Symptoms of SAD
People affected by SAD may notice that they start to develop symptoms in September, which can gradually get worse as winter goes on. Between September and October, you may feel:
- Lethargic and lacking in energy
- A craving for sweet and starchy foods
- An increased appetite
- Difficulty in waking up each morning.
Between November and December, you may also notice:
- An increase in weight
- Sleeping for longer
- Difficulty in concentrating
- A lower libido
- Feelings of withdrawal from family and friends.
During January and February, you may feel more anxious or irritable than normal, along with other symptoms of depression. Unlike other forms of depression however, the symptoms are likely to disappear quickly once spring arrives. In small numbers of cases, feelings of depression will change into elation or abnormally high moods, known as mania or hypomania.
The difference between SAD and depression
A specific diagnosis of SAD can only be made by looking back at your history, normally a period of at least two years where you have developed depression-like symptoms in the winter without showing any signs during the spring or summer. Some SAD symptoms are also less usual in classic depression, such as craving sweet foods, increased appetite, weight gain and sleepiness.
It is possible to have SAD for several years without you or your doctor realising. As recurring depression is fairly common, it is possible to be treated for it several times over the years before the seasonal pattern is noticed.
Getting treatment for SAD
There are a number of treatments available for SAD, and indeed, for the more milder winter blues. These include:
- Self help: Making plans to make the most out of any natural sunlight in a day is always a good start, while taking a winter holiday is also a good idea if you can afford it. Even if the holiday only involves staying at home, getting out in the daytime will help lift your brain hormones and chemicals. Telling your family how you are feeling will also help, as will making plans for the spring to give you something to look forward to. Regular exercise can also help
- Light therapy: Light therapy involves sitting in front of a special bright light for a while each day, which many people have found helps to improve their moods. While it is difficult to say if there is any more than a placebo effect, doctors are generally positive about this form of treatment. However, it can take time to work properly so stick with it
- Depression treatment: The depression symptoms of SAD can be treated in the same way as those of classic depression, which includes antidepressant medicine, or psychological treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy. Your doctor will be able to help identify which of these options could be suitable for you.