We’re sure that most of you are prone to feeling a little glum as the seasons change, particularly when the last scraps of summer roll around into autumn, knowing full well that a few months of cold, grey, and wet weather lies ahead. If you’re someone who loves the cold, then this could well be the case as winter ascends into spring! Whatever your favourite season might be, aside from feeling a little blue as the weather changes, life pretty much continues as normal.
However, if you find yourself struggling a lot in the colder months of the year and your mental health tends to take a nosedive, then this could be an indication that you’re battling with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal affective disorder is a relatively uncommon condition, affecting around 2 million people in the UK. It’s suspected that this number is likely much higher as the condition is so commonly swept under the rug, simply labelled the ‘winter blues’.
But seasonal affective disorder is a lot more disruptive than feeling a little glum as the evenings draw in. Like other types of depression, it has the potential to disrupt and derail many aspects of a person’s life and shouldn’t be disregarded. If you think you’re someone who struggles with seasonal affective disorder, keep reading to find out how to spot the symptoms.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Although commonly referred to as ‘winter depression’, seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that can rear its ugly head throughout the year, not just the winter months, although it is more common at this time of year.
There’s a lot of stigma that swirls around seasonal affective disorder, and people tend to dismiss it as silly or unworthy of attention or treatment. Just like other forms of depression, seasonal affective disorder can infiltrate every element of someone’s life and leave them feeling low, worthless, or unmotivated, to name just a few of the symptoms.
What causes seasonal affective disorder?
Just like other types of depression, seasonal affective disorder can stem from many roots and typically differs from person to person. Because of the nature of the disorder, it has largely been linked to environmental causes, like reduced sunlight or changes to a person’s body clock but it can also be due to hormone imbalances too.
Effects of sunlight on SAD
Did you know that when light hits the back of your eye, it sends messages to the part of your brain called the hypothalamus? This is one of the major control centres of the brain, regulating everything from your appetite, sleep cycle, and sex drive to your mood, and temperature too. The less light that hits the back of your eye, the less stimulation this part of the brain receives, and can gradually slow down and in extreme cases, pack up all together. Some people might need more light stimulation than others, which makes some people more susceptible to seasonal affective disorder than others.
A disrupted body clock
Your brain is able to set your body clock based on the hours of daylight. If you live in the UK or any country that loses a lot of daylight in the winter months, this can totally mess up your internal body clock. When you’re living out of sync it can mess up your sleep cycle and eating patterns, which can have a significant effect on how your mind functions. This can result in tiredness, a lack of energy, and negative thoughts, all associated with depression.
Linking back to disruptions to your body clock, seasonal affective disorder can be attributed to hormone imbalances in the brain, triggered by the changing seasons. When it’s dark outside, your brain produces the hormone melatonin, which is the body’s natural sleep hormone. Because of the light changes outside, your brain might start producing more melatonin, meaning you lack energy and feel tired throughout the day even when it’s daylight. Serotonin, the hormone affecting mood, has also been found to be affected by sunlight intake. The more sunlight you get, the more serotonin you brain will produce, ultimately elevating your mood.
5 symptoms that indicate seasonal affective disorder
To save you from sitting at home googling ‘seasonal affective disorder symptoms’ yourself, we have put 5 of the most common symptoms pertaining to seasonal affective disorder. If some or all of these symptoms resonate with you, you’re likely suffering from a little more than a case of the winter blues!
Oversleeping, or hypersomnia, is usually a good indication that someone might be struggling with seasonal affective disorder. As we said before when the clocks change it starts getting darker much earlier so the body will start producing more melatonin to get you ready to sleep, because to your brain darkness = sleep. Lethargy, a lack of motivation or energy, and oversleeping are all good indicators that something is awry when the seasons change.
Alternatively, insomnia has been associated with summer seasonal affective disorder. SAD isn’t reserved solely for the winter months and people can struggle with the condition in the sunnier, lighter moths. Troubling sleeping can occur because your body isn’t producing enough melatonin, which can also lead to tiredness and irritability.
- Weight loss or weight gain
The hypothalamus manages your appetite so when this part of the brain is under-stimulated, you might find you your appetite changes too. Under or overeating is another good sign that your body is out of kilter, so keep an eye on your eating habits and weight to make sure you aren’t seeing any drastic changes. If you struggle with winter seasonal affective disorder, you might find an increased craving for carbohydrates in particular. When your body is fighting low levels of serotonin, it can trigger a craving for carbohydrates as these tend to boost our mood and short-term energy.
- Social withdrawal
Just like other forms of depression, someone battling with seasonal depression might experience a desire to retract into themselves and not socialise. This is also referred to as ‘hibernating’. Depression is a lonely and isolating condition to live with and keeping an eye out for signs that you might be feeling less energetic, have no desire to see people or leave the house, can help you catch it before it evolves.
- Losing interest in activities
Another common trait of depression is losing interest in activities you once enjoyed or looked forward to. You might find yourself with little to no motivation, or simply no desire to take part in it! You may also find you are having a hard time concentrating. You could muster up enough energy to start the activity, like reading a book or playing your favourite sport, but fizzle out halfway through and struggle to stay invested in what you’re doing. Losing interest or struggling to stay focused are two tell-tale signs that something like seasonal affective disorder might be afoot.
- Negative thoughts and feelings
Any overwhelming and continuous negative emotions like feeling sad, low, guilty, hopeless, or worthless, can all be attributed to depression and seasonal affective disorder. When these feelings are allowed to fester and take root in your mind, it can be very hard to shake them off and pull yourself out of it. In extreme cases, these negative thoughts and feelings can escalate into feelings of suicide. Picking up on these emotions sooner is the best way to get on top of them. There are lots of tactics you can practice to rewrite the negative narrative in your mind and replace it with a more positive thought process.
If you’re struggling silently with seasonal affective disorder, we urge you to reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or a mental health professional who can offer you support to get through this rough patch. Just talking to someone or learning a few tips to help adjust through the changing seasons can lessen the burden and help make those difficult months a little bit easier. Don’t battle through seasonal affective disorder alone or brush it off as unimportant, it has the potential to infiltrate every element of your daily life if allowed to, so make sure you’re keeping an eye on the signs and know when to ask for help.
Morale is here to do our bit in supporting someone who’s feeling down or depressed with seasonal affective disorder! By downloading our app, available at Google Play or Apple’s App Store, you can send out anonymous daily affirmations to anyone in your network and remind them that they’re not battling SAD alone. A few positive words can contribute to rewriting the disruptive dialogue in their minds and conquering the negative thought process. And don’t worry, as we creep towards spring, we get approximately 2 minutes more sunlight each day! So hang in there, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
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