Alyssa Shepherd sheds some light on this often-trivialised and rarely understood disorder.
Can you imagine spending half of the year happy and content, but then one day waking up and feeling different, almost as if at the snap of your fingers? As the days become darker, so too do your moods. Everything seems to become a huge struggle, and something appears to hang over you like a dark cloud. This is what it is like to live with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Every year, thousands of people are affected by SAD – and yet, the disorder continues to be shrouded in misconceptions, a dearth of awareness and understanding. Such misconceptions perhaps stem from the fact that the disorder has a funny name, often leading to frequent trivialisations of its effects. SAD, however, is as debilitating as any other mental disorder, and one whose causes and symptoms need to be given more exposure.
SAD is sometimes known as ‘winter depression’, since its symptoms are more apparent and often severe during the winter (although some feel its effects in the summer). Those who suffer from SAD find that their symptoms begin to appear around December, January and February, when the days start to get shorter. In the UK and Ireland, we are more vulnerable to SAD due to our location in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere. It is routine for most people to be affected by a change in the seasons throughout the year. It is normal, for example, for people to feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days last much longer, or to find that you eat more and sleep longer in the winter than you would in the summer or the spring. SAD sufferers, however, experience such changes in a different and more extreme way. Symptoms can range from a persistent low mood, feeling lethargic, irritability, a loss of pleasure or interest in normal activities, to sleeping for much longer than usual. For some, these symptoms can lead to depression, and can have an extremely debilitating impact upon their day-to-day activities.
Although a recognised mental disorder, the exact cause of SAD is still not fully understood. As previously highlighted, medical professionals attribute the disorder to the reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days. The lack of sunlight is considered to stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus from working properly, which in turn affects the production of melatonin – the hormone that makes us feel sleepy. Reduced exposure to sunlight may also lead to lower serotonin levels in the body, the hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep, which is also linked to feelings of depression. The darkness associated with winter also affects your body’s internal clock, which uses sunlight to time various important functions, such as waking times, appetite for food and energy levels. It is also the case that many people are more susceptible to SAD due to genetic reasons, with some cases frequently running in families.
A range of treatments do exist for those who suffer from this serious disorder with the funny name. Light therapy is one such treatment which has proven to be extremely effective in alleviating the effects of SAD. A special lamp, called a light box, is used to simulate exposure to sunlight at a convenient time for sufferers of SAD, so that the correct receptors in the eyes can trigger the required serotonin release within our brains for natural sleep cycles and generally improved moods. The optimal time for this lamp to be used is early on in the day so as to give a boost throughout the day, but the ability to relax and wind down in the evening. SAD lamps can be easily and cheaply purchased through sites such as Amazon, at the click of a button. Other treatments for SAD include changes in lifestyle measures, such as exercising more regularly or trying to get as much natural sunlight in as possible by taking a short walk at lunchtime or sitting near a window as much as possible when indoors. Talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling, are also effective in combatting the symptoms of depression and anxiety which frequently stem from SAD. Finally, antidepressant medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are also recommended by medical professionals to tackle the effects of SAD.