Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari
Six Ways to Ease the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
The clocks are going back this weekend and the nights are drawing in, so it’s an important time to shine the spotlight on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) - which affects as many as one in three UK adults.
SAD is a type of low mood state that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. It is often referred to as “winter depression” because the symptoms tend to be more apparent or severe during the winter months.
It manifests itself in a wide range of symptoms which, according to the NHS, can include:
• A persistent low mood or irritability
• A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
• Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
• Feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day, or sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
• Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
The severity of these symptoms will vary from person to person, but they can have a significant impact on day-to-day activities. The exact causes of SAD are not fully understood, but it is believed to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight.
Remember that it will most likely pass as the seasons change. However, there is no reason that you should suffer until then. There is lots of help and support out there for you to overcome any struggles you’re facing.
There are also many things that you can do to help ease the symptoms and improve your mood - I’ve made six suggestions below that might help you if you’re having difficulty:
1. Get as much natural light as you can
Exposing yourself to natural light wherever possible can certainly help. Take a walk outside at lunchtime, visit a park, spend time in your garden or take the dog for a walk.
Of course it’s not always possible to get out - perhaps you have to work all day or the weather is bad - in which case, sit near a window. Throw the curtains open and position yourself nearby.
2. Exercise regularly
When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins, which are known to trigger a positive feeling in the body as well as relieving pain and stress. Physical activity also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin - more brain chemicals which play an important part in regulating our mood.
Aim for about 20 minutes a day - it doesn’t need to be for long as long as it’s daily. If you’re able to exercise outside then this is even better, as you’ll be exposing yourself to natural light at the same time. Do whatever you enjoy - walking, running, cycling, even dancing to energetic music - all movement is good movement!
3. Think about your diet
Studies have shown that there are links between our diet and our mental health. It’s important to nourish our bodies and ensure we are consuming foods that can be easily digested to help regulate our mood.
Fill your diet with plenty of vegetables and roots, such as beetroot, carrots, ginger and sweet potato. Consume foods containing B12, such as fish, milk and cheese, and consider adding supplements of vitamin D and Omega 3 to allow your body to function at its best.
4. Practise self-care
Take time out for yourself and do the things that make you feel good and relaxed. It might be yoga, a relaxing bath, snuggling up with a good book or treating yourself to a face mask. Take the opportunity to connect with friends and family, whether it’s via phone or in person. Practise gratitude by thinking about what you’re grateful for in your life.
Put yourself first and enjoy the me-time.
6. Try light therapy
Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a treatment in which you are exposed to an artificial light source. It’s not suitable for everyone but it does prove effective for some people. Speak to your doctor about this as an option to see if it’s something you’d like to explore.
5. Seek professional help
If you are struggling to cope then you can seek professional help from your GP or a therapist, who’ll be able to provide the appropriate support. You will be armed with skills and techniques to manage the situation and be supported in understanding if there’s an underlying medical or emotional issue to explain your low mood.
Check in with your friends and family to see how they're feeling; you never know who might need some extra support at this time. If you know that someone is more susceptible to SAD, try to avoid a superficial "how are you?" and instead ask sincerely and warmly "how are you really feeling at the moment?". At the end of the day, we all need that kind of intimate connection.
This article was written by couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, therapist supervisor and has been the Chair of Imago UK since 2013.