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Do you dread the bleak winter months? If you find that your mood changes drastically during winter, you could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Mental health issues such as low mood and depression can occur all year round, but new cases of low mood in winter could actually be due to SAD. Whatever the case, our kind and experienced private doctors are always happy to help.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

This is a type of depression that is experienced by some people at the same time each year. If you have SAD, you may find that your symptoms start in the autumn and continue through the winter, improving markedly when the spring arrives. SAD is not the same as clinical depression, although the two are related.

SAD vs Depression: What's The Difference?

The difference between depression and SAD is that people who suffer from SAD often have normal mental health throughout the year, but notice that they suffer depressive symptoms at the same time each year, usually when the nights begin to get dark and the weather worsens. A smaller number of people are affected by SAD during the summer months.

SAD seasonal affective disorder depression autumn

Seasonal Affective Disorder generally begins to affect sufferers in Autumn, continuing through Winter, and improving come Spring


What Causes SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder seems to develop as a result of inadequate exposure to bright light during the winter months.

Factors which may increase your risk of developing SAD include:

  • Female gender
  • Younger age
  • Having a relative who suffers from SAD or depression
  • Suffering from another mental health condition
    • such as bipolar disorder or depression
  • Your location
    • SAD appears to be more common amongst people who live far North or South of the equator, where there is less sunlight available during the winter


Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

As with depression and other mental health conditions, the symptoms of SAD should be taken seriously, as it is a real mental health condition which is very treatable.

Watch out for the following symptoms:

  • Feeling a persistent change in mood
  • Loss of energy
  • Loss of interest in hobbies that you used to enjoy
  • Wanting to sleep or eat more than usual
  • Feelings of pessimism or hopelessness
  • Wanting to be alone
  • Weight Gain
  • Difficulty concentrating, or inability to finish tasks
  • Decreased sex drive

Like any mental health or medical condition, SAD can get worse if it's not treated, and in some severe cases it can lead to problems at school and work, social withdrawal, or even suicidal thoughts or behaviour. Thankfully, with the help of a professional who understands your condition, there is a lot you can do to ensure this doesn’t happen to you.

 SAD depression symptoms

SAD can lead to feelings of low mood, loss of interest, pessimism and wanting to be alone  


I Think I Have SAD: What Should I Do?

The first step is to tell someone who can help you, and your doctor is a great place to start. Your GP may carry out a psychological assessment to check your mental health. You might be asked questions about your mood, eating and sleeping patterns, your lifestyle, and your personal and family history. Your GP will likely want to distinguish between your functioning in these areas during the winter months vs the rest of the year.

You may also undergo a brief physical examination, or maybe even some blood tests to rule out possible physical causes of your symptoms. For example, anaemia is a common cause of tiredness, which can in turn lead to low mood.

SAD can be a tricky condition to diagnose because there are other types of depression that have similar symptoms. It may take a while before you and your GP realise that your symptoms are forming a regular pattern.

A diagnosis of SAD may be considered if:

  • you have suffered similar symptoms during the same season for at least two years in a row
  • the periods of low mood are followed by periods when you feel much better
  • there are no other obvious explanations for your seasonal mood changes


How To Improve Your Mood

There are a number of simple lifestyle changes you can make to improve your symptoms:

  • Maximise your exposure to natural, bright light - get outside during the daylight hours, make your home and work environments as bright as possible, and sit near windows when indoors
  • Exercise - especially outside! Physical activity is a well-known mood booster
  • Eat a healthy, well balanced diet
  • Get support - talk to your family and friends about your condition, and help them to understand why your behaviour changes in the winter months. Understanding this can help them to support you more effectively

Outdoor exercise, to treat SAD, depression

Outdoor activities, such as running or hiking, are a great way to combat SAD - by getting both exercise and essential sunlight at the same time



Other Treatments For Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder is generally treated in a similar way to depression. The main forms of treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder are Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT), anti-depressant medications, and light therapy, and we will look at these options in a little more detail below:

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

This is a form of talking therapy in which you will have a number of sessions with a trained psychotherapist. CBT aims to help you learn to change how you think about a situation by recognising and challenging negative thoughts about winter. It can also help you brainstorm fun things that you can do in winter, and motivate you to avoid isolating yourself when you are feeling down.


The usual type of antidepressant used for SAD is called a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI). This drug works by increasing the level of a hormone called serotonin (responsible for feelings of well-being and happiness), by blocking its absorption before it has a chance to do its job in the brain. These drugs may be useful if your SAD is affecting your life badly. However, these drugs do not work for everyone, and may take several weeks to be effective, so it is worth discussing this option with your GP at an early stage of your treatment.

Light Therapy

As we have mentioned, SAD is thought to occur from lack of exposure to bright light. Light therapy, therefore, most commonly entails sitting next to a special "light box" for a period of time each day. The additional light is thought to increase your production of serotonin (the hormone that improves your mood), and reduce your production of another hormone called melatonin (which makes you tired). For some people, this can help tackle the cause of SAD, and improve your symptoms; however, evidence on the effectiveness of light therapy is mixed. 

antidepressant, SSRI, SAD, depression

Antidepressant medications, called SSRI's, are often prescribed to people struggling with depressive conditions such as SAD


So if you're feeling down at all this Winter, why not pop into any of our central London clinics to discuss matters further with one of our private doctors. Our doors are always open, for you to seek the help you may need to take that first step towards a more positive 2017.

By Melissa Dillon