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Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder: what is it like to live with seasonal depression?

Whilst this time of year brings joy for some, for others, it can bring a feeling of hopelessness, self-doubt and misery.

This is because some people struggle to adapt to the changes this season brings—which is officially recognised as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).


What Causes SAD?

Whilst it isn’t fully understood, it’s often linked to lack of exposure to sunlight which occurs during the colder season where mornings and nights get darker quicker, and for longer.

Also referred to as ‘winter depression’, SAD can have a profound impact on an individual’s wellbeing affecting not only their day-to-day activities but their work too.

During this time, the body’s internal clock changes. Sunlight usually indicates when you should be awake and when you should be asleep meaning lower levels of exposure to sunlight can disrupt your natural body clock. For some, they notice small changes like getting out of bed is made more difficult than usual but for others, it can be severe.

Symptoms include:
  • Persistent low mood
  • Irritability
  • A loss of interest in normal daily activities
  • Lacking energy
  • Feeling guilty, despair and worthlessness
  • Craving carbohydrates and weight gain
  • Sleeping for longer than usual and finding it difficult to get out of bed

This form of depression, like any other, should be treated by your GP if you feel it is impacting your life in any way and whilst there is no cure, there are ways to help you manage it.

Kiran Singh, Lifestyle & Mindfulness Coach said: “People with seasonal affective disorder experience mood changes and symptoms similar to depression which occurs every year at the same time, usually starting in Autumn, getting worse during Winter, and then ending during Spring.

“Seasonal affective disorder may begin at any age but it typically starts when a person is between ages 18 and 30 and is more common in people living far from the equator where there are fewer daylight hours in the winter. It can be effectively treated in a number of ways, including light therapy, antidepressant medications, talk therapy or a combination of these.

“For some people, increased exposure to sunlight can help improve symptoms of SAD. For example, spending time outside so that you are exposed to a window during the day.

“Taking care of your general health and wellness can also help - regular exercise, healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and staying active and connected (such as volunteering, participating in group activities and getting together with friends and family) can also help.”

What is it like to have SAD?

You may find it strange that this happens but it’s more common than you think—around 1 in 10 people suffer from seasonal affective disorder and may not even be aware of it.

Georgia Marie, 21 from Cornwall first noticed her symptoms in 2015. She said: “I began to notice the dark mornings and afternoons a lot more and without anything to distract me, the dark evenings felt empty. It started to really affect my sleeping too; it would take me so long to fall asleep that I would often struggle to get out of bed before 12 pm and of course by that time I would be lucky to have five hours of daylight left.

“I would feel my mood dropping the darker it got and many evenings were spent with me sitting at my desk crying with no desire to do anything at all.

“I found out about SAD through a Facebook article a friend had shared which helped to know that I wasn’t just being a lazy and miserable teenager; there was actually a word for what I was experiencing.

“I mentioned feeling particularly low during the winter months to my GP, but received a generic response of, “I think we’re all feeling a bit low at the moment” which didn’t help. I don’t blame him as SAD isn’t as highly recognised as other mental health issues and people assume that “it’s just one of those things” that everyone feels a bit rotten in the winter and that it’s normal - I don’t think people really recognise that SAD is a thing.

Still suffering today, Georgia adds: “Though it’s definitely not as intense as it once was, I find myself dreading winter and feeling absolutely terrified of dropping into that depression again. I went back to college a year ago, around the same time I started my first job, and I definitely have noticed that it’s less intense. It still lingers though; I have to wake up at 6 am to catch my bus so the dark mornings affect my mood. For the first few minutes, I have to really talk myself into getting out of bed and facing the day. I try to create as much light as I can when I first wake up, and that really helps me to ignore the darkness outside.

“I have two lamps in my room that are plugged into a remote-control socket, and I keep the remote by the bed so that I can turn the lights on as soon as I wake up. I find that lighting candles help - the nice smells and the warm light are a really good distraction. I also try to do a ten-minute meditation every morning use the free Headspace app to refocus my mind and set positive intentions for the day.

“For me, I think distraction is the best thing to help me cope. Watching TV or YouTube, playing a game, reading a good book or listening to a podcast are all things that I do, and they usually help. There are days where they don’t and those are the hardest to get by. I just have to keep reminding myself that it won’t last.

“I think it’s so important to raise awareness of SAD because I feel like so many people experience it, and like I used to, blame themselves for being miserable or lazy. It’s a really tricky thing to get through because it is a form of depression.”

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical professional and therefore not qualified to diagnose or give anyone advice. This post is simply sharing tips from my experience of SAD as well as others as well as information I have found from the NHS. If you believe you have SAD, please seek professional advice by visiting your GP. This post is not an alternative.