Many of us complain about the dark nights and the shorter days at this time of the year, but the change in seasons affects some people a lot more than others.
For people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), this time of year can considerably affect their mood and energy levels, and they can experience significant depressive symptoms that affect their daily lives. For people who already have depression, they might find that their symptoms worsen at this time of year.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
SAD has many symptoms and you might get all or just some of them. If your doctor diagnoses you with SAD, it will most likely be because you have experienced symptoms at the same time of year for the last few years. Symptoms include:
- Lacking energy
- Being unable to concentrate
- Having trouble sleeping or sleeping for longer than normal
- Feeling low, tearful and hopeless; or sometimes, feeling nothing
- Feeling anxious and unable to cope
- Experiencing panic attacks
- Comfort eating
- Getting ill more often
- Relying on substances like drugs or alcohol
What are the treatments for SAD?
If your symptoms are affecting your daily life, talk to your GP who should talk you through your treatment options which may include:
- Talking treatments like CBT, counselling, or psychotherapy which can help you deal with your symptoms and think about whether other things are contributing to them.
- Taking antidepressants which can increase the activity of some chemicals in the brain such as serotonin which regulates mood.
- Taking St John’s wort which is a herbal remedy that can help some people manage symptoms of SAD. Be aware though, that St John’s wort does interact with some types of medicines like antidepressants and the contraceptive pill, so always talk to your doctor first.
- Trying bright light therapy which can involve just buying your own light box to increase your exposure to light or getting professional light therapy (which unfortunately isn’t often available on the NHS.) It’s thought that light therapy works by encouraging the brain to increase levels of serotonin (which regulates your mood) and reduce levels of melatonin (which makes you feel sleepy.
- Accessing specialist SAD services. If your treatment options aren’t working for you, you may have the option of being referred to a specialist SAD service, though these are few and far between, and waiting times for appointments can be long.
I’m a friend or family member of someone with SAD, what can I do?
As with other mental health problems, people with SAD can isolate themselves rather than asking for help and support, even though they might really need it. Here’s what you can do:
- Encourage them to get help. Tell them that there are things they can do to feel better, and it involves getting the right treatment and support. SAD is a recognised mental health disorder that needs proper treatment.
- Help them with practical things. Could you help them around the house or attend appointments with them?
- Give them emotional support. Listen to them, or if they don’t want to talk, just sit with them. It might seem like they are pushing you away at times or being ungrateful for your help, and while this can be hard, just try to remember it’s because they’re unwell. Avoid saying things like ‘pull yourself together’ because it will probably make them feel worse when they already feel hopeless and useless.
- Take care of yourself. Some people forget this important step, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. Get support and advice from support groups, your GP or speak to a counsellor.
Is it SAD or something else?
If one of your friends, colleagues, or family members was suffering from SAD, or any other mental health problem, would you be able to tell? What signs would you look for, and how would you help?
Our mental health first aid training gives you the confidence and knowledge you’ll need to recognise mental health problems and offer appropriate help.
The course is available to anyone over the age of 16. Visit our Mental Health First Aid course page for more information on our courses or fill in our contact form and our course tutor will get back to you.