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The Unseen Effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder

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As the seasons shift, so can our moods. The days grow shorter, darkness arrives earlier, and a noticeable change can be felt in the atmosphere and us.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): It’s not just the Winter Blues

For some, including myself, this transition is more than just a routine environmental change – it’s a trigger for a specific type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), it is something I have suffered with for years albeit only recently have I tried to understand it and reduce its impact on my family. If I am being truly honest it was my family that pointed out there are two versions of me, Jekyll, and Hyde if you like, spring/summer catalogue Jon, all drinks and BBQs and the autumn/winter collection – practical and functional but that’s about it.

Monstrous Marquee – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Rivoli – New York City, New York – 1931” by monstersforsale is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

But it’s not just me………….

It’s estimated that about 3% of the population in the UK suffers from SAD, that is 2million of us. An even larger percentage, possibly up to 20% of the UK population, may suffer from a milder form of the condition often referred to as the “winter blues.” That is a staggering 13.5million people.

So, let’s dive in and uncover what is SAD, what are the unseen effects of SAD and most importantly what you can do to protect yourself and others from your moods. Seasonal Affective Disorder doesn’t impact just you but the whole family unit.

What is a SAD Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, commonly known as SAD, is a type of depression that occurs during specific seasons of the year. Most associated with autumn and winter, it can also strike in the spring and summer. This seasonal ebb and flow of mood can greatly impact daily life, making understanding and treatment crucial to limit its impact on you and your wider community.

For me SAD typically kicks in around September when the kids go back to school and the reality of a long dreary cold and wet future lies ahead walking the dog alone in the dark. Walking the dog is normally my favourite way to start the day and that gets taken away from me. Even writing that makes me feel SAD (see what I did there).

My SAD Symptoms

So, what does SAD typically look like? It’s difficult to say as it manifests in different ways but here are some typical symptoms of SAD that affect me:

  • Oversleeping – I find myself struggling to get out of bed to walk the dog, when I do you might find me creeping back into bed after, leave me alone for more than 15 seconds in the day and I’ll be snoozing away.
  • Overeating, especially carbohydrates – cooking becomes a major chore best avoided by eating anything that comes in the form of plastic wrapper – yum!
  • Social withdrawal – can’t be bothered becomes my life motto, the idea of going out or interacting with others is outweighed by my desire not to.
  • Loss of interest in activities – see above, it is a common joke in our household that we can’t do anything after 2pm and if I leave the house in the morning I cannot be allowed to return before jobs are finished otherwise, I simply won’t leave the house again.
  • Fatigue – oversleeping, overeating, not interacting and not partaking in usual activities all lead to fatigue and that sense of not being bothered. It is a vicious cycle until that wonderful massive light appears in the sky again. I wish I could do something about it, but yes, you’ve guessed it, I can’t be bothered.
  • Weight gain – all the above contribute to putting on weight which really makes you feel great about yourself, it creeps up on you as you are wearing your big, comfortable winter wardrobe. Bravo belly – well done, you’ve filled your boots again.
  • Procrastination – I can’t seem to start or finish anything. New projects that inspired me now just seem to drift and become uninteresting. I lack all motivation to start and finish pretty much anything that isn’t life or death.

Do I like being like this? No, absolutely not. The fact that my whole outlook on life, the way in which I work, communicate, and behave can change on the flick of a switch makes me feel like a bit of a puppet.

puppets in the museum (ústí nad labem)” by langalexx is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

How Do I Cope with SAD?

Basically, do the opposite of the things that you see in yourself as being an issue. Living with SAD can be challenging, but many have found ways to cope and improve their well-being. That is much easier said than done. As I’ve mentioned depression can make my urges not to do something slighter more than my urge to do. It has a nasty habit of that. Here is how I try to combat mine:

– Maintaining a regular sleep schedule (get active if you feel a nap coming on, distract yourself)

– Exercising regularly (start something new to break the routine, I’ve recently started Couch to 5k to get me running, I started playing 5 -a-side football again after 10+ years – I love it)

– Find new ways to engage with tedious tasks (I signed up to Hello Fresh to start cooking different meals and trying new foods)

– Don’t ignore the signals (armed with the list of common symptoms you will start to recognise the changes, get ready)

– Engaging in light therapy (more on that later)

– Staying socially connected (no I don’t mean social media get out and speak to people, I bought a car so I can do Friday Sea Dip, belong to something where people will notice you)

SAD is a repeatable, repetitive cycle. You need to ride it out the best you can. You need to find ways to break up the cycle.

So how is this relevant to you?

You might not be grumpy; you might just be SAD. You may have never stopped to think about.

Perhaps some of the things I’ve mentioned resonate but that is just my personal experience, as I mentioned before SAD can manifest in various forms. Just because you might not be able to see the physical signs does not make it any less an illness.

The Unseen Effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is often simplified as the “winter blues,” but its reach goes much deeper. While some symptoms are visible, such as changes in appetite or sleep patterns, many of its impacts remain unseen, lurking beneath the surface and influencing various facets of life. Here are some of the less visible effects of SAD:

1. Cognitive Impairment: People with SAD might have trouble concentrating, making decisions, or processing information. This can affect productivity and performance in work or school environments. As an example, it took me 8 years to finish this blog. I put things off, projects need to be completed in the spring or summer or forget it.

2. Decreased Libido: An often-undiscussed consequence of SAD is a decreased interest in sex. (I didn’t know it could get any lower than none!). This can strain romantic relationships and impact self-esteem.

3. Emotional Withdrawal: Beyond the observable social withdrawal, there’s also an emotional retreat. You might feel emotionally distant, even from those you’re close to, making it challenging to connect or communicate feelings. For some of us that is just everyday life.

4. Substance Abuse: Some individuals might turn to alcohol, drugs, or other substances to cope with their depressive symptoms, which can lead to addiction or exacerbate the depressive episode. I tend to drink less in the winter months as I enjoy the summer months of sun and cider but if you do notice a change in drinking patterns it could be a serious sign that something is not right.

5. Feelings of Worthlessness or Guilt: These intense feelings might not always be voiced, but they can weigh heavily on a person’s mind, influencing their self-perception and interactions with others.

6. Physical Aches and Pains: Some people with SAD report unexplained aches, pains, or changes in their sensitivity to pain. These physical symptoms can be frustrating, especially if their connection to SAD isn’t recognised. A physical symptom for me is a tightening of the screws after a hip operation. I can feel a change in seasons by how much my hip hurts. Again, this makes me feel old and fragile contributing to SAD.

7. Economic Impact: While not a direct symptom of the disorder, the reduced motivation and cognitive impairment linked to SAD can result in missed workdays, reduced productivity, and even job loss. This can lead to financial stress, adding to the cycle of depression.

8. Anxiety: Even though depression is the primary symptom, some individuals with SAD can also experience heightened anxiety, tension, and even panic attacks.

9. Increased Sensitivity to Social Rejection: People with SAD might be more sensitive to perceived slights or social rejections, leading them to avoid social interactions altogether. I get over this by avoiding social interactions altogether.

10. Disruption in Daily Activities: The cumulative effect of these unseen symptoms can disrupt an individual’s ability to carry out daily routines, engage in hobbies, or even perform basic self-care activities.

11. Suicidal Ideation: In severe cases, the feelings of hopelessness and despair can lead to thoughts of suicide. It’s crucial to seek professional help if someone exhibits signs of suicidal ideation.

Quite an alarming list when you run though it and fortunately for me, I seem to only suffer from the milder effects.

Thanks Jon, I’ve now got a list of ailments that I recognise in myself or someone close to me I want to help but how do I do that? Review how I cope with SAD and then apply your own style.

To wrap up

Seasonal Affective Disorder, while cyclical and predictable, can be a debilitating condition for those it affects. By understanding its nature, symptoms, and potential treatments, those afflicted can navigate the seasonal changes with greater resilience.

The unseen effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder underscore the importance of understanding, compassion, and support for those affected. Recognising that the impacts go far beyond the observable symptoms can help friends, family, and healthcare providers offer more effective support and interventions. If you or someone you know struggles with SAD, seeking professional guidance is essential.

Frequently Asked Questions about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Is SAD a Type of Depression?

Yes, SAD is a subtype of depression. What differentiates it is its seasonal pattern. Sufferers experience depressive episodes, often around the same time each year. It’s commonly linked to winter – characterised by its cold and shortened days (see my point above).  

Nobody likes to think that they may have a form of depression but merely ignoring what you dislike does not make it go away. We need to educate ourselves, so we have the tools and resilience to limit its affects. More on that in a moment.

Is There a Cure for SAD?

While there’s no known “cure” for SAD, several treatments can alleviate its symptoms. Identifying and beginning treatment early can prevent symptoms from escalating.

What are the 4 major treatments for SAD

SAD treatment often mirrors that of other forms of depression:

Light Therapy: Using a lightbox for about 20-60 minutes each day, preferably in the morning, can simulate the sunlight that’s missing during the darker months (see below for more detail).

Personally, this made no difference. I was bought a SAD lamp along with this sentiment “we bought you this, you are really difficult to live with sometimes and think you could do with some help”.

Beautiful, brings a tear to my eye.

Medication: Some might benefit from antidepressant treatment.

Seriously? If it is that bad, consider moving to a sunnier climate.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Specially tailored CBT for SAD can help patients identify negative thought patterns and replace them with more positive ones.

I underwent CBT training, and it changed the way I see things, the way I think and improved my overall wellbeing. It was not directly because of SAD but I was suffering with depression. I thoroughly recommend seeking out some help with CBT.

I genuinely wish this was taught to students at school as there are some very simple tools and techniques that can make a huge impact.

Vitamin D: While its direct impact on SAD is still debated, some individuals find relief with vitamin D supplements.

Not tried this one myself but at this point in life (I am 42) any vitamin supplements are probably worth a try. Holland & Barrett here I come. 3 for 2 on mix and match.

SAD Lamp

Central to light therapy is the SAD lamp or lightbox. This isn’t your ordinary lamp. It emits a brighter light, devoid of UV rays, replicating natural sunlight. The exposure to this artificial sunlight can cause a chemical change in the brain, lifting the mood and easing other SAD symptoms. When selecting a SAD lamp, it’s essential to ensure its specifically designed for SAD treatment and delivers the appropriate intensity, usually around 10,000 lux.

I have one. I didn’t rate it. It lives in a box under my desk. If anyone would like to buy a second-hand SAD lamp, hit me up.

Further reading and useful links

I don’t have all the answers, just what I have learned from experience and a bit of research. To explore more about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), you might want to:

NHS (National Health Service)

The NHS has comprehensive information on SAD, its symptoms, causes, treatments, and more.

NHS (National Health Service)

The NHS has comprehensive information on SAD, its symptoms, causes, treatments, and more.

MIND (The National Association for Mental Health in the UK)

They offer excellent resources on various mental health issues, including SAD.

SADA (Seasonal Affective Disorder Association)

This UK-based organisation focuses exclusively on SAD and offers a wealth of information for sufferers and their families.

Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder” by Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal. This book offers insights from one of the pioneering researchers on SAD.

Featured image credit:

Winter storm Cape Perpetua, Oregon” by Bonnie Moreland (free images) is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.