Seasonal Affective Disorder - When the Seasons Affect Your Mental Health

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that we experience during particular seasons and times of year or because of certain types of weather or temperature. SAD affects millions of people and is four times more likely to affect women than men.

What are possible effects of SAD?
Lack of energy
Difficulty concentrating
Not wanting to see people
Feeling sad, low, tearful, guilty or hopeless
Feeling anxious, angry and agitated
Being more prone to physical health problems, such as colds, infections or other illnesses
Sleeping too much, or difficulty waking up (common with SAD in winter)
Sleeping too little, or waking up a lot (common with SAD in summer)
Changes in your appetite, for example feeling hungrier or not wanting to eat
Losing interest in sex or physical contact
Suicidal feelings

Understanding SAD

SAD is a form of depression that is often associated with changes in weather and daylight hours. It is most commonly experienced during the winter months, although some people may experience it during other seasons. For some, SAD can start manifesting in autumn and progress into winter, while for others, symptoms might occur in summer, which is known as SAD in reverse. Transitional periods of spring and autumn can also be difficult for some people, as it is the time in-between winter and summer that can be unsettling.

The lack of sunlight/day time hours and generally gloomy weather conditions are the most common triggers for SAD. In the case of SAD in reverse, symptoms are intensified by too much daylight, long days, and heat that can often be intolerable. Tiredness and disrupted sleep patterns are common symptoms of SAD in winter, while in summer, the heat and shorter nights can affect mood, weight, energy levels, and socialising habits, which all contribute to physical and emotional well-being.

Although changes in climate and environment are commonly associated with SAD, there may be more to it than that. Research on the disorder has yielded some interesting and conclusive results, as well as areas where more research might be needed. For people suffering from SAD, the differences between seasons are presented as extremes, swinging from deep depression to something close to mania, depending on the season. The anticipation and yearning for warm weather and sun can be intense for those suffering through the winter months, while the approaching cooler temperatures and darker nights can bring much-needed relief for those with summer depression.

However, there is little balance in the way seasonal changes are viewed, and transitional periods are often ignored, leading to living in polarities of experiences. As a result, people with SAD may benefit from learning how to fully experience the transitional periods between seasons and finding ways to balance their moods and energy levels during these times.

Looking at our past

Many of us may not be aware of the recurring patterns and cycles that accompany each season, which can affect our emotions and behaviours. Sometimes, we only recognise that something doesn't feel right. Counselling can help us become more aware of our feelings and behaviour patterns by exploring our past experiences. Our attitudes towards each season may be influenced by past events that we are not conscious of. For instance SAD can be linked to significant dates, anniversaries, and traumatic events such as childbirth, death, abusive experiences, or childhood trauma.

Symptoms of SAD often manifest in the body, such as increased appetite, lack of energy, and physical discomfort, as our bodies hold onto emotions and memories associated with each season. For many people, family gatherings during the holidays can trigger memories or patterns that no longer serve them, but they may not know how to break free from them. This can make us feel stuck in time. Winter, in particular, can feel like a period of grieving and loss, and if a significant event occurred during this time, symptoms of SAD can intensify. The darkness of winter, or the abundance of light during summer, can also exacerbate feelings of loneliness and introspection, which can be challenging.

We can explore these patterns, process unprocessed grief, and learn to build healthy boundaries, especially if we have experienced difficult family dynamics. By discovering and addressing areas that were previously neglected, we can begin to heal from the heavy and dark experiences that recur every year, and find a way to approach each season with more ease and awareness.

Support for SAD

Living with SAD can be difficult, but there are lots of things you can do to help yourself cope. Different things work for different people at different times, so if something doesn't feel possible just now try not to put pressure on yourself. Find personal freedom in choosing what works for you.You can always try something else or come back to it another time. 

Talk to a friend, family member, work colleague, your GP or a counsellor
Keep a diary reflecting on your mood and emotions
Plan for difficult times and putting things in place in advance
Learn ways to relax, meditation and mindfulness are really helpful ways to help us relax
Look after your physical health

If SAD affects you during winter, there are particular things you could try that might help. You could:
Make the most of natural light. It might help to spend time in natural light, for example going for walks, spending time in parks or gardens, or simply sitting near a window. 
Plan ahead for winter. For example, try to make meals in advance and freeze them if you know you are likely to lack the energy to do this during the most difficult period.

If SAD affects you during hot weather, there are particular things you could try that might help. You could:
Drink plenty of water so that you stay hydrated.
Find ways to keep cool, such as finding shade or wearing loose clothing.
Visit indoor places. Staying inside all the time could make you feel isolated. It could help to try doing activities indoors, like visiting your local library or going to the cinema.
Plan ahead for summer. For example, try to avoid going outside at the hottest times of day where possible.