Have you ever found yourself feeling down, demotivated, and uninspired during the winter months? Only to find yourself automatically shift gears into a more energised, optimistic and engaged state of mind when spring comes around? YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
In this blog post I will explain the well-documented phenomenon that results in this seasonal fluctuation of mood states, what symptoms to look out for, and various self-help and professional treatments you may pursue in order to feel your best during the autumn-winter months.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) refers to a type of depression caused by the shortened days and longer nights during autumn and winter seasons.
Thankfully, the symptoms abate as soon as spring and its sunnier, lengthened days arrive.
SAD is a lot more severe than the winter blues – which is a noticeable yet manageable and less severe form of the same concern.
The idea of a kind of seasonal downturn in spirits has been around for centuries.
However, it was only in the 1980s that South African-born psychiatrist, Dr Norman Rosenthal, and his US colleagues coined the term Seasonal Affective Disorder and put a name to what has troubled many humans for centuries.
Symptoms to look out for
Here are some of the characteristic symptoms of SAD:
- loss of energy
- social withdrawal
- increased sleep and fatigue, difficulty getting out of bed in the morning
- loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, decreased libido
- overeating, cravings for sweets and other carbohydrate-rich foods
- weight gain, and
- poor concentration
In its full form, SAD results in:
- compromised productivity (professional, academic)
- compromised interpersonal relationships, and
- lack of pleasure or interest in activities one previous enjoyed
You may notice that these symptoms are almost identical to depression. This is because, as previously mentioned, SAD is in fact a type of depression. Or more specifically, a depression characterized by a seasonal pattern.
One can be diagnosed with SAD if the symptoms have been present for two consecutive autumn-winter seasons and there is no other explanation for the symptoms.
SAD in South Africa
Many South Africans discount the impact of the African winter on our moods – specifically because the environmental difference between spring-summer and autumn-winter is not as pronounced as it is in Europe and the northern hemisphere.
Rosenthal (2008) argues that people in the southern hemisphere may experience the winter blues but only develop full-blown SAD when moving to northern hemisphere.
In my personal and clinical experience, SAD and the winter blues does in fact effect South Africans. I’ve watched friends and family feel more energized and adventurous when spring has sprung – and they are also very conscious of this sudden shift in their spirits. I see how patients already struggling with depression, have their moods lift (just that extra bit) when the seasons change each year.
Why concern ourselves about SAD while we enter spring-summer?
“But why speak about SAD at this time of year?” you may be asking.
Even though we are privileged enough to be entering into a very sunny spring here in South Africa, I think it is important to educate ourselves about SAD so that we are prepared for our next autumn-winter.
Take a moment to consider the impact that shortened days, a reduction in exposure to sunlight, and increased length of dark nights has had on you over the past few months.
Can you feel a noticeable shift in your energy, your ability to get out of bed in the mornings, your motivation to be adventurous and venture outdoors?
Self-help strategies and tips
Here are four self-help interventions that you can employ to manage the effects of SAD:
- Get more sunlight
Increased exposure to sunlight is free and increases the vital feel-good chemicals, serotonin and dopamine levels, in your body. Try the following:
- spend time sunning yourself outdoors for at least 10 minutes– even if you are fully clothed
- exercise outdoors, and
- open your curtains and blinds, trim tree branches that block sunlight entering your home.
- Take a Vitamin D supplement
Vitamin D is produced naturally in the body when exposed to sunlight. Lower levels of Vitamin D in the body are more likely to occur in the winter months and are correlated with depressive symptoms. You might want to discuss taking a Vitamin D supplement with your nutritionist or GP.
- Increase your intake of Omega 3
Omega 3 supplementation (either in animal or plant forms such as flaxseed, hemp, and walnuts) also helps manage the level of dopamine and serotonin in your body.
Exercise increases the feel-good chemicals in your body and helps manage stress and anxiety – which are not only symptoms of SAD but compound the negative effects of SAD on an individual.
- Eat right
Avoid carbohydrate-heavy foods that are high in sugars and starch. These foods have high glycemic indexes and lead to a vicious cycle of energy highs followed by energy slumps, and increased cravings for the same carbohydrate-heavy foods.
- Value your sleep
That’s right. A good night’s sleep makes the world of difference.
Maintain a regular sleep routine that includes 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
If you struggle with insomnia, you may want to research gentle stretching, progressive muscle relaxation or pre-sleep meditations to help you drop off into the land of nod.
Also, try to avoid drinking caffeinated beverages 4 to 6 hours before bedtime, and some people try not to engage in vigorous exercise after late afternoon as it impacts negatively on their sleep.
Here are three of the most common professional treatments recommended for SAD:
- The best-known treatment for SAD is light therapy. Unfortunately, this is not readily available in South Africa.
Research shows that light therapy is:
- effective for 60-80% of SAD sufferers
- preferably administered in the mornings
- the average person needs between 30-90 minutes of treatment a day
- positive effects are experienced within 2 to 4 days of initiating treatment, and
- the therapy needs to be continued through the darker months to remain effective.
- Antidepressant medication (specifically Wellbrutrin XL) has been shown to assist with SAD, provided it is started before the change in season and onset of autumn-winter symptoms.
- Talk therapy and shorter-term interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy are also indicated.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very real condition, characterized by a negative impact on mood and motivation during the darker months.
However, there are a number of self-help and professional interventions that may help you thrive during the autumn-winter seasons.
Knowing that you have options is a good indicator of mental health.
I hope this blog post will be of use to those in the northern hemisphere who are currently entering the autumn-winter seasons. And to those in the south:
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Carr, K. (no date). 9 ways to conquer seasonal affective disorder. KrisCarr.com blog. Available at: http://kriscarr.com/blog-video/seasonal-affective-disorder-treatment/ [Last accessed: Sunday, 30 August 2015]
Kerr, David C.R. et al. (2015). Associations between vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms in healthy young adult women, Psychiatry Research, 227(1), 46 – 51. Available online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2015.02.016 [Last accessed: Sunday, 30 August 2015]
Targum, S. D., & Rosenthal, N. (2008). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 5(5), 31–33.
Shamos, J. (2007, August). South Africa’s winter sadness seasonal affective disorder (SAD): patients as partners, African Journal of Psychiatry, 10(3), 183-184, Available online: http://hdl.handle.net/10520/EJC72627 [Last accessed: Sunday, 30 August 2015]