It’s that time of year again when the nights have drawn in, the weather seems to be in a permanently bad mood, and we’re all playing who can leave the heating off the longest. As the shorter and darker days set in, it’s not uncommon to feel the changing of the seasons a bit harder than at other times of the year. Heading into winter brings a feeling of finality to the year (even though more of winter is at the start of the year, but let’s not pick points), and the changing temperatures give us more of a reason to hide at home. For a significant number of people, these and other factors can lead to them experiencing what is often referred to as the ‘Winter Blues‘ or to give it its technical, yet verbose feeling, name Seasonal Afflictive Disorder; SAD for short. One of the most deliberate acronyms you’ll ever come across, but a very real psychological disorder nonetheless. So, throughout this blog post, we’re going to talk a little bit about SAD, some of the ideas and theories behind it, and what you can do to minimise its effects on you.
Is SAD a Real Thing?
In case the opening paragraph didn’t make it clear, Seasonal Afflictive Disorder is an officially NHS recognised mood disorder and form of depression. Searching around on the internet will undoubtedly turn up ‘debunking’ articles and claims it’s not real, with many citing an American study from 2016, a generalised summary of which can be read here in The Scientific American.
There are plenty of views to take on this subject and the research, but if nothing else it is a purely American-centric study, and cultural norms and mindsets vary significantly between countries. The British national mindset is very different to the American one, something which in itself is a valid argument for why their findings may differ.
As with all aspects of life, your beliefs on this subject are yours to decide. But the NHS recognises the condition, and if nothing else it is easy to make the argument that we’re British and one of our cultural stereotypes is moaning about the weather, so of course, we’re going to be more susceptible to these kinds of changes!
According to the Royal College of Psychaitrists, while SAD can affect anyone, it is more common in adults in their mid-twenties to their mid-fifties and occurrences are three times more likely in women than men in this age bracket. SAD can present in all demographics of the population; it is not uncommon for children to appear less willing to do things or just generally lazier and older people will often have an increased reluctance to go outside. Overall, the data seems to suggest that around 3% of the UK population are severely affected by it each year, with a much higher (and apparently undocumented) percentage suffering from mild to medium symptoms.
There is no one universally agreed upon set of symptoms for SAD. Broadly speaking symptoms will follow ‘normal’ depression and manifest accordingly. The only real differentiating factor is that they appear or worsen at specific times of the year; usually autumn into winter in the UK.
The NHS list the following as symptoms of SAD:
- a persistent low mood
- 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
- sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
- craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
- difficulty concentrating
- decreased libido
This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor should it be treated as a checklist. The simple truth is that if your mood takes a turn at this time of year, then you may find yourself experiencing some of the above symptoms. If this happens, it’s quite likely SAD that’s afflicting you.
What Causes SAD?
Given the fairly loose definitions and symptoms associated with SAD, the causes are just as hard to define. Most sources cite the imbalance of two key hormones in the brain as the primary cause, just like any type of depression.
A lack of serotonin can cause low moods amongst other things. This is usually what antidepressants treat by helping to increase levels of the hormone. Also, an excess of melatonin can make us feel sleepy and unmotivated. Such an imbalance is a very normal cause of depressive feelings.
But these chemical responses aren’t caused by the seasons changing, they’re a product of how we respond to that change. As such, sources such as the NHS and Mayo Clinic cite the lack of sunlight as probably the biggest factor. Sunlight stimulates serotonin production and helps the body’s internal clock (the circadian rhythm) manage various cycles such as sleep. When both of these get affected by the change in seasons and availability of sunlight, this, amongst other things, can lead to SAD.
There’s definitely a comparison to be made between SAD and the way some other mammals act at this time of year. So maybe our desire for carbohydrates, warmth, sleep and general inactivity is less about the weather and more of a desire to hibernate… This is a strange phenomenon in humans, but we have to turn our VERY reluctant instructors out of their shredded paper-lined shoe boxes every January to get them ready for the start of term. So maybe, just maybe, other more normal members of the public feel the same way…?
How to Cope with SAD
For the majority of people, SAD will be nothing more than an annoyance that they can easily manage themselves with some simple coping strategies. The usual advice about living a balanced and healthy lifestyle applies, as keeping your body running as effectively as you can is always going to be a wise move. But there is some more specific advice too.
Exposing yourself to natural sunlight wherever possible is advised by the NHS to help with SAD. A short walk, sitting by a window and having light and airy environments can all help mitigate symptoms. Winter vitamin supplements can help balance your system if you are lacking certain things, but it’s always best to consult a pharmacist before starting any kind of supplement.
Regular exercise is also a great way to tackle symptoms of SAD as it naturally generates serotonin and, if you’re attending a gym or club etc, helps reduce feelings of isolation. This is especially true in children given how naturally energetic they are. No matter how reluctant they can be, getting them out to a club (like Gym Bubbas!), going for a walk, riding a bike, or anything like that, can improve their moods and help prevent symptoms from reoccurring if the activity is more regular.
Ultimately, we hope that anyone reading this doesn’t have to deal with SAD in themselves or their loved ones. But if it does seem like you or someone you know is having symptoms at this time of year, then help them to get out a little bit more, encourage them for a walk, wrap up and go to the seaside or the moors for a change of scenery and some sunlight. If it seems that they are struggling a bit and the symptoms are worsening, that is the time to contact the GP. Get a review and make sure this seasonal affliction doesn’t grow into a more permanent one.
It’s hard to argue that encouraging children to move more is always a good idea. But at this time of year, when everything can seem that much harder, getting them out, in what little sunlight there is, and moving will do them more good than they’ll realise. Enjoy the crisp, cold, sunny days when you can and make sure you wrap up warm and visit us at Gym Bubbas this winter!