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Mental health during the colder months

Have you ever heard of the ‘winter blues’?

A lot of people find that their mood drops during the colder months. While it can be easy to put it down to cold, miserable weather, the winter blues can actually be a sign of a more serious mental health issue knowns as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is SAD?

SAD is type of depression that is connected to changes in the seasons. It usually begins and ends at the same time each year — often beginning in late autumn, lasting through winter, and into the early months of spring.

What causes SAD?

Researchers aren’t clear on what causes SAD but they believe it’s related to the reduced amount of sunlight that interrupts the body’s biological clock (circadian rhythm). This reduction in sunlight can also cause a slump in levels of serotonin, an important chemical that affects mood. Finally, seasonal changes can also disrupt the balance of melatonin which impacts sleep patterns and mood.

Girl sitting on edge of a stone wall

What are the signs and symptoms of SAD?

If you care for someone it’s important to be able to recognise the signs and symptoms of SAD, so you’re able to support them. Symptoms may start out as mild, but usually get worse as the season progresses. These may include:

  • feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day
  • not being interested in activities like you usually are
  • low energy
  • trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • changes in your appetite or weight
  • overeating or craving carbohydrates
  • feeling sluggish
  • having difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • changed mood, in particular feeling agitated and anxious
  • feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • feeling suicidal.

Remember, people with SAD may not always be able to explain how they are feeling. They may also try to hide how they feel — especially if they feel worthless or suicidal. That’s why it’s important to be aware of any changes in their behaviour or mood.

Who is at risk of SAD?

Not everyone experiences depression related to the seasons. Those who are more at risk include:

  • women — SAD is diagnosed in more women than in men
  • older people — the risk increases with age
  • family history — having a blood relative with SAD or another form of depression
  • having major depression or bipoloar disorder
  • where you live — the further away from the equator you live, the higher the risk.

Treatment for SAD?

SAD is a recognised form of depression with many Australians reporting feeling low and flat during the cooler months. If you, or the person you care for experience any of the symptoms, it’s important to visit your doctor so you can get the right treatment. Treating SAD can involve:

  • Increasing exposure to sunlight — spending as much time as possible in the sunlight can make a difference
  • Light therapy — also known as phototherapy, this involves sitting in front of a bright light that comes from a special light box for around 30 minutes a day
  • Regular exercise — where possible, aim to get outside for some exercise, even if it’s just a walk around the block
  • Counselling — speaking to a counsellor or mental health professional can help
  • Mind-body techniques — engaging in mind-body techniques such as relaxation, meditation or even music and art therapy can be benficial
  • Medication — if symptoms are severe or don’t improve with other treatments, your GP may prescribe anti-depressant medication to relieve your symptoms.

How can you support someone with SAD?

While it’s normal to feel sad from time to time, SAD is a condition that usually requires treatment. Be aware of the symptoms and if you notice someone you care for is exhibiting signs of depression, don’t be afraid to talk to them. Reassure them that SAD is common for many people and encourage them to see a doctor. It can also help to tell them that the sooner they seek treatment, the sooner they will feel better.

 The symptoms of SAD can be similar to other mental health conditions so it’s important to see your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis.

References:

Mayo Clinic, Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651

Healthdirect, Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/seasonal-affective-disorder

John Hopkins Medicine, Seasonal Affective Disorder, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/seasonal-affective-disorder

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