As the seasons change, so too can our moods. With the departure of summer, we also say goodbye to the warmth that accompanied it, the lighter evenings fade to darkness, and we spend more time indoors. For some people, this is a difficult transition.
While normal to experience a change in mood with the change in seasons, if one experiences these feelings consistently, and over a prolonged period of time, to the extent it is interfering with daily life, then this is more serious. Experiencing a shift in mental wellbeing that moves beyond ordinary fluctuations in mood could lead to depression, and if these feelings keep returning at the same time of year, doctors might call this Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression. It is ‘a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern’, according to the NHS. SAD is sometimes known as ‘Winter Depression’ because the symptoms usually manifest during the winter months, however there are a small number of people who experience ‘Summer Depression’.
The exact cause of SAD is unclear, however reduced exposure to sunlight and changes in circadian rhythm are believed to play a significant role. The Circadian Rhythm is our internal body clock. Constantly running in the background of our brains, it governs our sleep/wake cycle, temperature, mood, appetite and more. The connection between sunlight and serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to mood regulation, is key in understanding SAD. Reduced exposure to natural light during the winter months may contribute to lower serotonin levels, potentially triggering depressive symptoms. Changes in daylight hours can disrupt the Circadian Rhythm for some people, leading to disturbances in sleep patterns and mood.
SAD comes with a variety of symptoms, including low mood and persistent sadness, social withdrawal, changes in appetite (and a craving for carbohydrates), difficulty concentrating and disrupted sleep patterns. Those with winter SAD may experience fatigue, oversleep and find it hard to wake up and people with summer SAD may experience difficulty falling asleep and insomnia. These symptoms can interfere with daily life and impact relationships, work, and overall wellbeing.
It is vital to seek medical treatment if you suspect you may be experiencing SAD. There are a number of treatments, which may be prescribed alone, or likely in combination, including medication, psychotherapy and light therapy. This involves exposure to a bright light that mimics natural sunlight, usually in the morning for around 30 minutes which is said to help regulate the Circadian Rhythm. It’s essential, however, to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the appropriate intensity and duration.
Self care strategies
There are also a number of self-care strategies that can help alleviate or prevent symptoms. Ensure you get natural light exposure every day, so at work if you can, sit by a window and get out for a walk on your lunchbreak. The light as well as the movement will signal your Circadian Rhythm that it is still time to be alert.
Maintaining a healthy diet and fitness regime means you are feeding and exercising your brain as well as your body, which can in turn have mood boosting effects. Finally, don’t feel you need to go it alone. Confiding in friends and family means they can better understand SAD and how it affects you and this in turn will help you to feel understood and provide the extra support you will need during this more vulnerable period.
When it comes to the workplace, employees who experience SAD may develop changes in behaviour and mood, which include problems with concentration and decreased productivity and performance. If employers are aware of the signs and symptoms of SAD, they can spot which members of staff need support and, hopefully, appropriate resources will be provided.
For more suggestions on how affected employees can overcome seasonal affective disorder, and how colleagues can support those struggling with the condition, take a look at our newly launched webinar on the topic. Further information on its contents can be found here.