How to Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a type of mood disorder which affects people at a specific time of year, usually in the winter. Does your mood get low when the days grow short? Read on.

SAD potential symptoms and causes

As the nights get darker and the days colder, those who struggle with SAD may be looking forward to the coming season with dread. Typical symptoms of SAD include feeling depressed, sleeping too much, having little or no energy, heightened anxiety, and either overeating or losing your appetite. Experts widely recognise SAD as a real disorder, and it is classified in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a subset of recurrent major depression.

We do not know precisely what causes SAD, but theories include changes to the biological clock (circadian rhythm) due to reduced sunlight, lower levels of the neurochemical serotonin, which regulates mood, and disruptions in levels of the hormone melatonin, which plays a role in both sleep patterns and mood.

SAD can be miserable for the sufferer, especially as mental health disorders remain misunderstood and highly stigmatised. The temptation to brush it off as just “the winter blues” or tell yourself to snap out of it can be really high.

Instead, try these tips.

First, give yourself permission to feel it

Despite what so-called “positivity gurus” will tell you, you cannot simply decide not to feel something. Your feelings are real and the science backs them up! So give yourself a break. You’re not weak, broken or failing – you’re suffering from a mental health condition. Suffering from SAD, depression or any other mental illness is no more a moral or weakness issue than suffering with diabetes or a broken leg.

Try to keep busy

You might be tempted, when SAD rears its head, to stay indoors under a blanket and not talk to anyone. This isn’t good for you. As far as you can, you should keep going about your daily activities – go to work or school, see your friends, spend time with your family, keep up with your hobbies. A routine and a reason to get out of bed will help things feel less bleak.

Do things that make you happy

Make a conscious effort to gravitate towards activities that make you happy. Hang out with that friend who always makes you laugh until you cry. Watch a comedy TV show or a guilty pleasure film. Cuddle an animal. Spend time on artistic pursuits. Get a manicure or a new haircut. Take a hot bath. Whatever it is that makes you feel happy, relaxed or alive, do that!

Reduce stress

Now is not the time to take on a huge new project or deal with very stressful things if you can avoid it. If something is stressing you out and adding to your struggle, seek help with it – or if you can, decide to put it aside until you’re in a better place to deal with it. Try to reduce stress at work by doing the most important or pressing tasks in plenty of time, delegating where you can, and seeking support from your colleagues and manager.

Get outside

There are fewer hours of daylight in the winter, so it’s really important to enjoy what we do have.  Try to get outside every day for at least an hour – a brisk lunchtime walk or drinking your morning coffee outside (well wrapped up of course!) can make a big difference to your mood.

Look after your physical health

It can be tempting to neglect your physical health when your mental health is suffering. But this can just tend to make depression worse! Take regular exercise, even if it’s just a walk around the block, and eat plenty of healthy, nourishing food. Fruit and vegetables, protein and healthy fats are important – but don’t forget to treat yourself sometimes, too!

Buy a SAD lamp

Light therapy involves using a special light that mimics the frequency and colour of daylight. Essentially, it can trick your brain into thinking there is more natural light than there actually is. SAD lamps, also known as light boxes or daylight lamps, are available to buy online and prices range from £20 up to hundreds. For best results, use your SAD lamp first thing in the morning and ideally for at least an hour a day.

Ask for help

Don’t suffer alone! Reach out to people for help.

  • If you haven’t told someone how you’re feeling, start by talking to someone you trust – your partner, a close friend, a parent or sibling is a great place to start.
  • If you’re employed, see if your company has an Employee Assistance Programme which will give you access to mental health support.
  • If you’re at school or university, see if your campus has a counselling or listening service that can support you.
  • And if you’re struggling at work or school, consider telling your boss, supervisor or another person in authority you trust about how you’re feeling.

People who care about you will want to help you.

See your doctor

Your GP can help you with mental as well as physical health. Make an appointment and tell your doctor how you’re feeling. They will be able to advise you, signpost you to appropriate services that can help (which may include counselling,) and prescribe medication such as antidepressants if you and they decide it’s appropriate.

SAD is difficult and for some people, it’s something they will have to content with every year. However, with the right support system and coping strategies in place, you can prevent SAD from bringing your normal life to a halt every winter.

Please don’t struggle alone – help is out there and thousands of people understand exactly what you’re going through.

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