Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D. as it is widely known, is a recognised form of depression that has a seasonal pattern with episodes of depression occurring at the same time each year, normally during the winter months.
As with other types of depression, the main symptoms of S.A.D. are a low mood and a lack of interest in life, together with being less active than normal and/or sleeping more than usual. These symptoms often begin in the autumn as the days start getting shorter and are usually most severe during December, January and February.
In most cases, the symptoms of S.A.D. begin to improve in the spring before disappearing altogether until the following autumn/winter. The exact cause of S.A.D. is not fully understood; but it’s thought to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of the year.
Sunlight can affect some of the brain’s chemicals and hormones. One theory is that light stimulates that part of the brain that controls mood, appetite and sleep and which in turn can affect how you feel.
In people with S.A.D., a lack of light is thought to affect the production of the hormones, melatonin and serotonin and the body’s internal clock, which regulate several biological processes during a 24-hour period.
If you believe you have the symptoms of S.A.D., your doctor will carry out an assessment to check your physical and mental health. You may be asked about your mood, lifestyle, eating and sleeping patterns and any seasonal changes in your thoughts and behaviour. As with any type of depression, S.A.D. can be very difficult. It can make you feel tired, stressed and unhappy with yourself and circumstances. However, it can usually be successfully treated.
Light therapy is often used to treat S.A.D. This involves sitting in front of, or beneath a light box. Light boxes produce a very bright light and help by replicating the sunlight that is missing throughout the winter months to help stimulate hormone production.
In severe cases, counselling or anti-depressants may be recommended; the latter in my view being very much a last resort.