Feeling down during the darker months is a common experience for many people. However, for those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), autumn and winter can bring about a significant bout of depression. SAD affects around 7% of the population, according to the Health Service Executive (HSE). Symptoms include low mood and energy, feelings of hopelessness and tearfulness, disruptions in sleep, changes in appetite, and loss of interest in enjoyable activities.
The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, but experts believe it may be partly genetic as it tends to run in families. Reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter daylight hours of autumn and winter is believed to be a contributing factor. A lack of sunlight can disrupt the brain’s hypothalamus, leading to increased production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleepiness. It can also affect serotonin production, the hormone that regulates mood, sleep, and appetite and is associated with feelings of depression.
Fortunately, there are self-help measures that can greatly improve SAD symptoms for many individuals. Taking walks during the daytime to maximize sunlight exposure, increasing physical activity levels, and establishing healthy sleep routines are all beneficial. Additionally, seeking the support and social contact of friends and family can have a positive impact on mood.
Getting as much natural sunlight as possible is also important. Taking a brief lunchtime walk or sitting near windows when indoors can help reduce melatonin levels and boost serotonin. Light therapy, which involves using a special lamp called a light box to stimulate exposure to sunlight, is another treatment option. While its effectiveness is not clear, many people with SAD report finding it helpful. Another option to consider is using dawn simulating alarm clocks.
If symptoms are severe, it is important to consult a doctor. A mental health assessment can be carried out to determine the appropriate course of treatment. Talking therapy and antidepressants may be recommended. It is crucial to listen to the concerns of friends and family who may notice the decline in mood and encourage seeking help.
In addition to medical support, online resources and helplines such as Samaritans and Samaritans Ireland are available for confidential support. Seeking help is essential if symptoms begin to affect various aspects of life and become difficult to manage. Remember, you don’t have to face SAD alone.