Every year, like clockwork, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) rears its head. As daylight wanes and the nights close in, people feel the negative impact of the changing seasons in a way that’s far more severe than 'winter blues'. The low mood, lack of energy and impulse to eat and sleep more which is all part and parcel of SAD (how crudely apt an acronym) is thought to affect around around 10 million Americans, according to Psychology Today. What's more, women may be four times more likely to experience it than men, and those between the ages of 18 and 30 or who have a family history of depression or bipolar disorder are at greater risk.
SAD is similar to depression in many ways, though with a couple of distinct differences, including its clear link to the seasons. Symptoms include "low mood, loss of pleasure or interest in normal activities, feeling irritable, worthless, guilty or in despair, a lack of energy or lethargy during the day, and struggling to get up in the mornings," according to LloydsPharmacy pharmacist Anshu Kaura. The symptoms differ when it comes to appetite and sleep — while craving carbohydrates and sleeping more can be symptoms of depression, they seem to be always present in SAD.
The exact cause of SAD is unknown but it is commonly linked to our reduced exposure to sunlight in the autumn and winter months. The main theory is that this lack of sunlight might stop the part of your brain called the hypothalamus from working properly, with a knock-on effect on the production of melatonin (which affects how sleepy you get) and serotonin (which affects your mood, appetite, and sleep). It can also affect your body’s internal clock. As your body uses sunlight time to regulate various important functions, such as when you wake up, lower light levels during the winter may disrupt your body clock and lead to symptoms of SAD.
Understandably, with everything that’s been going on this year, seasonal affective disorder is probably going to be worse for sufferers. "If another lockdown does occur this winter, some people may find that they receive less exposure to the sunlight than they normally would, even during the winter months," Anshu tells Refinery29. "Many people may find that they aren’t able to go out as much as normal and this, combined with the stress of the situation, may have an effect on the amount of people experiencing SAD."
Jaya Gowrisunkur, MD, is a consultant psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Harley Street and Priory Hospital Altrincham. She points to the need to work from home as a big factor in exacerbating symptoms, as well as the knock-on effect of the stress of this year. "We are all living with a degree of fear and great uncertainty. Our lives have changed in remarkable ways and we sometimes cannot quite recognize and process what has happened, and the scope and impact of these changes. Our liberty and choice have been restricted and many of the things which we enjoyed and loved, such as meeting friends, having a night out, planning and going on holidays, feel like impossibilities."
The ongoing weight of reckoning with this year so far, together with looming restrictions on what we’d normally do to find joy in the darker months (gathering in groups, sharing meals, looking forward to the holidays) contributes to the sense of "feeling trapped, hopeless and helpless," she adds.
"Working from home might amplify the depressive aspects as it might reinforce the tendency to stay where it is safe and not leave the home, thus minimizing opportunities for exposure to natural light, exercise, positive social interactions and the pursuit of outside activities."
If you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD, or are worried that they may come up in the months ahead, there are things you can do to help yourself.
Anshu advises doing your best to make lifestyle changes that safely take advantage of the sunlight while it is there: regular (socially distant) outdoor exercise, eating a balanced diet, sitting near windows when indoors and making your workspace light and airy. There are also people who find great relief in light therapy from SAD lamps.
Jaya also recommends making changes around your bedtime: Have "good sleep hygiene, which includes having no screens pre-bedtime and starting to get your mind in a calmer mode by meditating, writing a gratitude journal, or reading a book." She also recommends getting "a wake-up light alarm clock so that you don’t wake up abruptly and gradually adjust to the day starting" and trying to alleviate the effect that working from home could be having. Things like maintaining office hours, keeping a tidy environment and separating work and living areas where possible will all have a positive impact.
The key to preventing and/or managing symptoms lies in how we treat ourselves. "Accept that this is a challenge. Denying or ‘fighting your feelings’ can be invalidating, exhausting, and discouraging." Practice self-care by maintaining structure, watching your alcohol intake, keeping up social interactions and limiting passive entertainment like Netflix marathons.
As to other remedies, Anshu recommends upping your vitamin D intake as winter sunlight from October to early March may not contain enough UVB radiation for our skin to produce its own. You can get some vitamin D from food sources like oily fish, red meat, and egg yolks, or you can get it from supplements (but talk to your doctor before adding one to your routine).
If you're concerned that you may have SAD or are struggling with the symptoms, it's recommended that you see your doctor as soon as possible. There's no shame in asking for help — and the relief you could get is beyond worth it.