Seasonal mood disorder: why it gets you down and how to manage it

As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, some people find that they have less energy and are not as positive as usual. While these feelings may be temporary for some, about one in three people constantly struggles during the fall and winter months with a form of depression known as seasonal mood disorder (SAD).

Symptoms of SAD can range from mild to severe, but typically include:

  • Bad mood,
  • Loss of interest or enjoyment in things you have previously enjoyed
  • Change in appetite (usually eating more than usual)
  • Change in sleep (usually too much sleep)
  • Feeling worthless.

Researchers are not yet aware of what causes SAD, but it is likely to be complex and intricate. Some studies suggest that it may be due to a defective hypothalamus (an area of ​​the brain that regulates biological processes such as mood, sleep, and appetite) or that it produces too much melatonin (a hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycle, the brain’s pineal gland). Some researchers believe it may also be due to a disturbance in the circadian rhythm – a natural internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle.

Of course, other factors can also be affected. For example, some studies have shown that women may be more likely to experience SAD – although due to the lack of specific research, it is uncertain whether these gender differences actually exist and, if so, why.

Coping with it

Some find that their symptoms begin to ease as the seasons begin to change and spring approaches. But that doesn’t mean people couldn’t do many things during the winter months to help them cope with their symptoms.

The most important treatments recommended for SAD patients are psychological interventions (such as speech therapies) or medication (such as antidepressants). Studies show that cognitive behavioral therapy (which focuses on challenging our distressing thoughts and changing our behavior) is an effective treatment for SAD.

In one study, researchers showed that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was associated with significantly less depression when followed a year later than light therapy (another treatment sometimes used for SAD, which involves sitting in front of or under a box that emits very bright light, about 20- 30 minutes or more daily).

Central to CBT is supporting patients with a technique called behavioral activation, which aims to improve mood by encouraging people to structure their days and engage in meaningful, enjoyable activities – such as hobbies. Studies also show that certain antidepressants (especially SSRIs) may be particularly effective in treating the symptoms of SAD.

Light therapy is also currently being studied as a treatment for SAD. As it is still an emerging form of treatment, research on its effectiveness as an independent treatment for SAD remains inconsistent. But one study has shown that light therapy can be an effective way to control the symptoms of SAD when used in combination with antidepressants. Light therapy is usually not available from the NHS (UK National Health Service), so if you want to try it, be sure to choose only a product that is medically approved for the treatment of SAD – and follow the instructions or contact your GP.

In addition to seeking professional help, people can do a couple of other things to help them cope with SAD during the day.

Going outside and getting natural light is one thing people experiencing a sad illness can do for themselves. According to one study, increasing natural light during the day can help improve symptoms. According to the researchers, participants either went for an hour-long outdoor walk daily or used a low-dose artificial light box for 30 minutes a day for a week.

Participants who walked daily showed significant improvements in all depressive symptoms compared to those who had been exposed to artificial light. While it’s uncertain why daylight can improve symptoms, this can still be an easy and effective thing people can do to improve their mood every day.

Studies also show that lifestyle factors (such as exercise levels and diet) can play an important role in both causing and managing depression. In SAD in particular, there is evidence to suggest that exercise (alone or in combination with phototherapy) may improve symptoms.

Again, it is still unclear why this is the case. But research has shown that it can be related to changes in our circadian rhythms. A review looking at the effect of exercise on depression has shown both psychological (such as exercise that interferes with negative thoughts and a way to socialize) and physiological (such as changes in endorphin or cortisol levels) benefits.

While there are many things people can do to control the symptoms of SAD during the winter months, it is important to discuss the symptoms and feelings with your doctor – especially if the symptoms do not improve or if the condition becomes difficult to control.

If you have any difficulty or feel that you could benefit from mental health support, talk to your doctor and / or try to contact support organizations such as Seasonal Affective Disorders Association, Samaritans or Campaign Against Poor Living (PEACE).

Harriet Bowyer is a lecturer in applied psychology / clinical psychologist at the University of Glasgow Caledonian.

This article has been republished Discourse Creative Commons license. You can find original article here.

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