As Europe heads into the cold, dark winter months, many of its residents start to fall foul of the ‘winter blues’ or as it’s officially known, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). In the UK about 29% of the population suffer from SAD at this time of year, experiencing symptoms ranging from low energy levels to anxiety and low-self esteem. So what is SAD and how can you overcome it?
The serious side of SAD
While many people only feel the mild symptoms of SAD, for others it can be a complex depressive illness. SAD is triggered by a lack of sunlight in winter, which affects the hormones melatonin and serotonin in the brain. These hormones play an import role in controlling our mood, sleep and appetite. The symptoms of SAD include feeling sad, moody, grumpy or anxious for no real reason. Other symptoms include a loss of interest in your usual activities, the craving to eat more carbohydrates like bread and pasta, the need to sleep more and difficulty concentrating. On one end of the spectrum are those people who just feel mildly grumpy, on the other side are those who have to take time off work because they are feeling so depressed. SAD symptoms normally start in September or October and decrease by April or May.
Who gets SAD?
SAD can affect anyone, but its more common in people who live far from the equator, where the winter daylight hours are very short. Women are more affected than men, as are people between the ages of 15 and 55. As you get older, your risk of getting SAD for the first time decreases. Other people who are at risk are those who have a close relative with SAD.
How to beat SAD
Unfortunately, for most people the option of moving to the equator and enjoying maximum hours of sunlight is not an option. The Royal College of Psychiatrists strongly recommends seeking out as much exposure to natural light as possible. If you see a break in the clouds, take a walk at lunchtime and try and get a little bit of winter sun. A healthy diet and exercise can also help to reduce the symptoms of SAD.
Countries, like Norway and Sweden, where natural light is very minimal during winter, use light therapy to combat the shortage of natural sunlight. Light therapy involves using light boxes for as little as 30 to 60 minutes a day. You don’t have to stare into the light, but can sit in front of your light box while reading or watching TV. According to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association, light therapy is effective for 85% of cases and normally starts to work within two weeks.
The first step to beating SAD is to recognise that you are affected. If your symptoms are severe and not responding to a healthy diet and exercise, consult your GP for assistance. Certain medication that increases the levels of serotonin has been found to effectively treat SAD, as has cognitive behavioural therapy.
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