SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a type of depression that gets triggered in darker months. Find out how you can spot the signs and feel happier in winter...
'Autumn and winter are like a fog to me. I feel disconnected from myself and other people, it’s like a shadow falls over everything.'
'As soon as the days get shorter I start to feel off. It’s subtle and first but by December I can get extremely low. Sometimes I even hate myself and feel totally worthless.'
'I used to love winter and Christmas when I was younger, but these past few years I’ve started to dread it. I just feel so blue all the time.'
Do you feel unsettled when you notice the evenings drawing in quicker? Or that you can’t quite get on board with all the autumn hype about pumpkin coffees and falling leaves — no matter how much you want to? Or that, despite all the festivities, you sometimes feel strangely numb in winter (and not because of the nippy weather)?
If you find that you dread or even fear the colder seasons, then it’s possible that the issue runs deeper than you just being a ‘more of a summer person’. Signs could include feeling less and less like yourself as the days shorten, feeling low in energy, or being sad, irritable or tearful. If any of these sound familiar to you then you are not alone and might be dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
In fact, research by The Weather Channel and You Gov found that SAD impacts almost a third of people in the UK, with women 50% more likely to be affected by it. Essentially, it is a type of depression or low mood that people experience seasonally and cyclically in autumn and winter. Sometimes known as ‘winter blues’ or ‘winter depression’, SAD is on a continuum from minor through to severe. For instance, some people might feel a little down, irritable or low in energy as the days get shorter, yet for others, the condition can be completely debilItating. They might feel deeply disconnected, drained and disorientated during the darker months, as if life has lost all of its meaning and joy.
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic may have made the condition more severe for many last winter, as we were all more socially isolated than usual. This meant that we couldn’t access the usual things that might have given us a mood boost, such as pub nights, gigs, the gym, theatre shows, dining out, shopping or even a simple hug from a friend. So if you were hit particularly hard by the winter blues last year then again, you are not alone. And it’s also understandable if you fear them even more this year as a result.
The good news is that if you think you might be affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder, then there are various steps that you can take to feel better. But first, let’s look at the possible causes and signs of SAD.
No one is exactly sure what causes this condition, but it is thought to be an effect of your brain’s lack of exposure to sunlight during autumn and winter. This can impact on the following three things:
Melatonin is the hormone that helps to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. It seems that people with SAD have higher than normal levels of this hormone during autumn and winter, meaning that they can feel extra sleepy and lethargic.
Serotonin is a hormone that stabilises mood, feelings of wellbeing and general happiness, as well as your appetite and sleep. A lack of sunlight can lower serotonin, leading to depression as well as sleep problems and issues with appetite.
Your body clock uses the sun as its guide so when light levels dip in winter, you may find yourself feeling sleepy, disorientated and just generally out of sync. For instance, you might find it hard to get up in the morning or feel distracted during the day.
That said, it is important to remember that while your low mood might be seasonal, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t deeper underlying problems that SAD is bringing to the surface. For instance, winter months might bring with them particular challenges or flag up older childhood wounds, unresolved traumas, self-esteem issues, tensions in a key relationship or general dissatisfaction with your life that can lie buried during the busier, more energised summer months.
So it can be also useful to explore just exactly what it is that you are feeling sad about — is it just a general winter lethargy or could there be more to it?
SAD has many of the same symptoms as generalised depression, the main difference being that it is seasonal. This is not to say that people who experience SAD can’t also be depressed in spring and summer, but they might find that their mood worsens in autumn and winter.
Generally, if your low mood seems to start at the same time each year then this is a good indication that it is Seasonal Affective Disorder. With this in mind, here are the main signs of SAD:
Occasionally, some people may experience sudden upswings in mood during SAD and feel happier, more energised and more sociable. This can make things even more confusing, causing people to wonder why they feel ‘all over the place’. But in fact it’s just another aspect of the condition.
Thankfully, it is possible to treat, manage and improve the effects of SAD in various ways, it’s just a matter of finding what works best for you. Here are a few key things that can make a difference:
Try to go out on at least one walk a day, perhaps at lunchtime. When you’re indoors, sit beside windows and keep blinds or curtains open. At weekends, try to be outdoors as much as you can, whether that’s shopping on the high street, strolling through the park or going on a hike.
This basically involves buying a special kind of lamp called a light box, then sitting beside it each day (ideally in the morning for at least 30 to 60 minutes).
Essentially, this kind of lamp produces a very bright light that simulates the level of sunlight missing during winter, ‘tricking’ your brain into thinking it has had a burst of sun. This is thought to regulate your brain and body, bringing melatonin and serotonin levels back to normal and in turn improving upon your mood, energy levels and sleep.
It’s often the last thing you feel like doing when you’re tired or low, isn’t it? Especially when it is rainy, cold and dark. But exercise is crucial as it triggers the release of serotonin, the hormone that is lacking with SAD. Of course, an outdoor fitness routine would be ideal but if the weather makes that tricky then aim to work out at home, the gym or a local leisure club.
And if you need some motivation to get started, then why not see if you can find a ‘fitness buddy’ to keep you company? Walking, running and cycling groups are also great for this, as are exercise classes. This way you will also be socialising and connecting with others.
SAD causes a dip in energy levels, meaning that you might crave a lot of carbs in the colder months (you might also find that you turn to junk food for comfort). There is nothing wrong with following cravings or treating yourself, but nutrition and variety in your diet are also important for mood and energy levels. So as well as carbs you should also aim to eat proteins, fruit, vegetables and unsaturated fats, as well as drink plenty of water. You might also want to eat foods rich in melatonin (the hormone that can be dysregulated with SAD), such as cherries, eggs and pistachios.
Also, during autumn and winter our bodies take in less vitamin D from the sun, which is why it is thought that vitamin D supplements might help with SAD. You could also try omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, vitamin B and vitamin C.
Acknowledge that you don’t always feel your best in autumn and winter. Also, be mindful of taking on too much when you are low in energy and be aware of any critical self-talk. Try not to be too hard on yourself for not feeling as naturally upbeat as you might do in spring and summer — instead, see if you can turn your focus to self-care. Do what you can to take care of yourself and your feelings with comforting activities, whilst keeping an eye out for things that might feel good in the moment but cause problems later on, like using alcohol or food for comfort. If possible, turn your environment into an inviting space. Our senses play an important role in affecting how we feel so scents, textures, lighting, temperature and sounds can all help.
SAD can make you feel isolated and like hiding away but you don’t have to cope with it alone. It can help to speak to family members and friends about what you are going through, so that they can offer support. Even if you don’t always feel like socialising, aiming to meet a friend for a hot drink or chatting to a loved one on the phone can be mood-boosting in itself.
Scandinavian winters can be severe, with freezing weather and long nights. But it is for this reason that people in Norway, Sweden and Denmark have found effective ways to keep themselves cheerful in the colder months.
For instance, in recent years there has been a huge wave of interest in the Danish concept of ‘hygge’. Essentially, this just means feeling completely cosy and content in the moment, either alone or with loved ones. Experiencing hygge is all about slowing down and really noticing the present. Ways of creating it include burning candles, wrapping yourself in blankets and enjoying a good meal with friends while it’s cold outdoors. However you decide to find it, the focus is on practising self-care, making your surroundings more snug and enjoying cosy comforts with your favourite people.
Yet it’s not just the Danish who have things to teach us about winter living, as in Sweden there is also the concept of ‘friluftsliv’, which loosely means ‘open-air living’. The idea is that a lot of the winter blues come from being cooped up indoors, so it is essential to get outdoors and spend time in nature, whether with a sporting activity or a vigorous walk.
And let’s not forget the Norwegian philosophy of ‘koselig’, which means finding joy in the little things — but always with other people. In essence, koselig is about the warm glow you might find while having Sunday roast with your family in a country pub, or walking through a frosty wood with your partner, or drinking hot chocolate in a cafe with friends.
Overall, the Scandinavian outlook on winter teaches us that by focusing on connection, cosiness and the joy of the outdoors, we can lift our mood naturally — no matter what the weather is like.
Various types of therapy can help with SAD. For instance, a therapist using CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can help you make links between your thoughts, actions, physical sensations and low mood. They can also work with you to develop various tools to help you manage your mindset in winter. Essentially, CBT supports you in noticing the thoughts you are having and how you are interpreting them. For example, are you thinking in all-or-nothing terms? Are you discounting the positives? Are you telling yourself that you ‘must’ or ‘should’ be doing something? Are you catastrophising that you won’t be able to cope or blaming yourself for the way you feel?
CBT also looks at things you may be doing that may actually be reinforcing or worsening your low mood, which can create a vicious cycle. For example, are you isolating yourself as a result of how you feel? If so, then you’re probably giving yourself less opportunities to be out in the sunshine, taking part in activities and connecting with loved ones — and as a result, missing out on much-needed mood boosts.
Similarly, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) or other therapies that incorporate mindfulness can help you to become more conscious of your thoughts and feelings during the colder months. A therapist using this kind of approach can help you learn how to observe your thoughts from a distance, rather than becoming caught up by them. They can also help you to become aware of the ways in which you try to avoid difficult thoughts and emotions (and how this can be problematic in itself), so that you can feel safer about feeling your feelings.
Or do you feel that there might be more lying beneath the physiological and seasonal aspects of your low mood? For instance, could this time of year be bringing up deeper pains, wounds and losses to the surface, such as childhood upsets? If so, then a therapy that goes deeper and explores associations with the past could be helpful. For example, Psychodynamic Therapy can help you to understand how your earlier experiences might be affecting you in the present, while EMDR and bodily-focused therapies can help you to process unresolved traumas in a safe and guided way.
And remember that while online therapy is a great option all year around, it’s particularly helpful in winter months as you can stay cosy indoors while getting support. And if talking to someone feels like a huge first step, then having an initial chat session with a therapist could be a good way to ease yourself in.
Your GP could offer you useful resources or advice, plus check for any other underlying conditions that might also be affecting you. These could include physical health problems or other mental health issues. If your low mood is getting very low and you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or ending your life, then it is important to see your GP so that you can access more urgent support.
Seasonal Affective Disorder can be overwhelming at times but it is also totally treatable and manageable. By committing to self-care and seeking out support, you can find relief for your symptoms — and might even experience a newfound sense of wellbeing in the winter months.
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