While many of us look forward to the autumn period, excited by the cooler weather, the cosiness of our houses, lighting candles and sitting with warm blankets, drinking hot chocolate and mulled wine, and also the build-up till Christmas, buying presents, singing Christmas songs. For many of us, it is a time to look forward to and a time to enjoy. For some people, however, this season brings a feeling of dread. For those suffering with Season Affective Disorder (SAD), also commonly referred to as winter depression, this season can be crippling, lonely, and difficult. Research claims that SAD affects more women than it does men, however, we believe this to be incorrect. It is known that men are less likely to reach out for help regarding mental illness, due to various societal factors that makes it difficult to do so, namely hypermasculinity. Regardless, this is an extremely important and relevant topic for us to discuss. We will first begin by highlighting the causes of SAD, then discussing ways the symptoms can be reduced, or managed. Please do not use this piece as a substitute for professional help, if you are feeling down, lonely, or need someone to speak to, please see your GP.
SAD is caused by the change in season; colder, gloomier weather, coupled with fewer hours of daylight have a huge effect on our moods. Symptoms of SAD are similar to that of general depression, and include loss of interest in activities, lethargy, interpersonal problems, irritability, inability to concentrate, changes in sleeping pattern, and changes in appetite. The root of depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain, where serotonin (the happy chemical) is lower than usual. SAD is not well understood; however, experts believe that it is caused by an out-of-sync body-clock or improper levels of either melatonin or serotonin. It also appears that some people are more susceptible to SAD due to their genetics, as some cases appear to run in families.
Furthermore, there may be a link between SAD and one’s racial background and skin colour. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin, nail, and hair their colour, and protects the skin from UVB rays. The more melanin you have, the more sun you need so your body is able to absorb a sufficient amount of vitamin D. One of the most well-known and commonly experienced symptoms of vitamin D deficiency is depression. Black people and other groups of colour with darker skin have the highest amounts of melanin in their skin, and therefore need more sun so their bodies are able to produce vitamin D. Therefore, the less sun there is, the less vitamin D highly melanated individuals can produce, and this generates seasonal depression. If you are a person of colour who experiences SAD, it is important to see your GP and get your vitamin D levels checked, as this is what could be causing you to feel this way.
The main way people tackle SAD is replacing sunlight that is lost due to reduced daylight hours with a lightbox. This is referred to as ‘light therapy’, or ‘phototherapy’, and it involves daily sessions of sitting close to a light source that is more intense than indoor light, which aims to replicate sunlight. Light is absorbed through the eyes to be effective; research has shown that light absorbed through the skin does not seem to have much of an affect. These lightboxes can look like medical equipment, or like a regular house lamp. Other ways to reduce the symptoms are to move your body more, go on walks, go to the gym, even go ice skating if you wish. Moving your body and exercising is known to release endorphins, which trigger a positive feeling in the body. We realise that it can be quite hard to motivate yourself to move when you are feeling sad and low, but all it takes is to push yourself a few times before it becomes a part of your routine. This is essential to incorporate during this season to aid with the symptoms of SAD.
If you decide to visit your GP, they may recommend talking therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling. They may also recommend taking an antidepressant medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Regardless of what you decide to do to deal with SAD, it is important to be open and honest about the way you are feeling, and never feel like you have to suffer in silence. If you are experiencing SAD, it is very likely someone else in your circle is too, so it makes talking about it together even more important to normalise the situation and make others feel like they are not an anomaly. Do not be afraid of the change in season, embrace it and list the things you do like about winter and look forward to spring.
Here are some numbers you can call if you are feeling down, and you can always visit us at HWC; we are always more than happy to sit and talk over a warm drink and some biscuits.
Mind: 0300 123 3393 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm)
Rethink Mental Illness: 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 4pm)
Samaritans: 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)