“It is chiefly the changes of the seasons which produce diseases, and in the seasons the great changes from cold or heat” – Hippocrates, on what we now call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD is a type of depression that affects people at a particular time of year. Sometimes called the ‘Winter Blues’, the symptoms are most common in the colder months but can occur at any time of year and are always associated with a particular season or type of weather.
Although the causes of SAD are not fully understood, it’s thought that the lack of sunlight during winter might prevent the hypothalamus (the part of the brain responsible for releasing hormones) from working correctly. This can lead to depressive symptoms due to an imbalance of melatonin, a hormone which makes you tired, and serotonin, a hormone which controls your emotions, appetite, and sleep.
It’s also thought that the change in daylength can affect your circadian rhythm (your body clock) and lead to symptoms of SAD.
The symptoms of SAD include lack of energy or fatigue, persistent low mood, irritability, weight gain, sleeping for long periods of time and a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities.
While there’s no exact cure, there are many ways in which the symptoms might be managed.
Getting outside during the day is a great start. It keeps you active (a potential remedy in itself) and exposes you to natural light. If you can’t get out, spend time near a bright window whenever you can. If you have too much work to do, you could write your essay in the Main Sequence area of Western Bank Library where, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows, there’s plenty of natural light!
Another great way to manage the symptoms of SAD is by socialising. Go to that party you were thinking of putting off or call someone you care about. Not only can friends and family offer great support, but it’s been shown that social interaction is really good for your mental health (even if it feels like an effort, since it’s like going to the gym for your brain)!
Some studies have suggested that light therapy can be an effective way to treat SAD; lightboxes give off light much brighter than most artificial lights. However, these can usually be quite expensive and aren’t available on the NHS.
Perhaps talking it through with a councillor or joining a support group might help. If you’re really struggling, you might also want to consider having a chat with the University Health Service or your GP.
If you’re struggling or need any mental health support, a range of services are available for you to talk to by phone or online, or in person.