Winter is coming. The clocks go back this weekend, the nights are drawing in, the sun is hanging lower in the sky, and everything’s just a bit darker – including your mood! For some of us, this time of year also marks the start of the SAD season – a time to brace ourselves for feelings of low mood, carb cravings and dragging exhaustion. Frankly, we just want to hibernate! But you can learn how to combat seasonal affective disorder – so you can not only function in winter, but enjoy it.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Many of us are affected by a change in the season, perhaps feeling tired, or noticing changes to our sleep pattern or mood. Mild symptoms are often called ‘winter blues’. But if these symptoms interfere with your daily life, don’t brush them aside as a trivial condition that most people experience to some degree in the winter. You may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. This can be debilitating – especially if left untreated.

SAD is sometimes called ‘winter depression’, and has many of the same symptoms – and treatments – as other forms of depression. But there are biological factors at play, which are directly related to the amount of sunlight you’re exposed to.

SAD is caused by the body’s response to the shortening days and reduced natural light available during the winter months. This decrease in sunlight can affect your biology and lead to feelings of depression and lethargy. Although the exact causes aren’t fully understood, key factors include the reduced levels of sunlight affecting:

  • Your biological clock. Your body clock, or circadian rhythm, may be disrupted, leading to feelings of depression and lethargy.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in the brain chemical serotonin, which affects mood, may result in depression.
  • Melatonin levels. Disruption to your body’s melatonin levels may affect your sleep pattern and mood.

The effects can be mild to severe – but this is a condition that’s treatable, so you don’t have to hibernate – tempting as that can seem!

Seasonal affective disorder symptoms

Symptoms of SAD include many of the classic symptoms of other types of depression. They may include:

  • Tiredness, feeling lethargic and sleepy during the day
  • Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • Persistent low mood
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities, or social withdrawal
  • Irritability, feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight.

While SAD is often called ‘winter depression’, it’s not always experienced as feeling emotionally depressed. For many people, their main symptom is tiredness. This may be extreme, debilitating – even quite disabling. While tiredness itself can be a symptom of depression, the dragging exhaustion you may experience with SAD has a more physiological root, directly related to the amount of sunlight entering your eyes. And knowing this will help you tackle it.

If you do experience extreme or long-term tiredness, it’s very important to get it checked out by a GP – because tiredness can also be a symptom of many other conditions – including physical illnesses. And if your tiredness isn’t so much seasonal as all the time, you might, for example, be suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome rather than SAD. Always consult your GP, as they can help you get to the root of your symptoms and advise on the best course of treatment for you.

Seasonal affective disorder statistics – how common is it?

If you feel tired or depressed in the winter, you’re certainly not alone. Very many of us experience some symptoms in the darker months, with the milder ‘winter blues’ affecting about 20% of the population.

Seasonal affective disorder affects around 3% of people in the UK at some point in their life, and 5% in the US. Most people start to get symptoms for the first time in their 20s or 30s, but children can be affected too. Women are about four times more likely to have SAD than men.

SAD doesn’t last forever, though it can last for almost half the year – about 40%, depending on where you live. Living closer to the poles is, of course, a risk factor! And January and February tend to be the worst months in the Northern Hemisphere.

SAD is usually diagnosed when symptoms of seasonal depression are present for at least two years. Although rarer, a few people may experience SAD symptoms during the summer months and feel better during the winter.

10 ways to combat seasonal affective disorder

It’s important to speak to your GP if you think you’re suffering from SAD. They’ll be able to confirm whether or not it’s likely to be SAD that’s causing your symptoms, or another condition. They will also be able to recommend the most suitable treatments for you. Since the NHS recommends that SAD is treated like any other form of depression, this could include antidepressants or talking therapies.

There are many ways to cope with, manage and treat SAD – including plenty of things you can do yourself. The main ones are:

  1. Get natural light. Get as much natural sunlight as possible. It doesn’t have to be a sunny day. Being outdoors, even on a dull, cloudy day will give you the benefit of natural light. Even being next to a window, and positioning your workspace for maximum natural light will help.
  2. Use a lightbox. It’s not always possible to get enough natural daylight in the winter months. In the depths of winter in Scandinavia, for example, life is pretty dark for a while! But you can get the benefits of natural sunlight artificially, from the comfort of your own home. Light therapy has been shown to be effective for many people. A special lamp called a lightbox is used to simulate exposure to sunlight. Ordinary domestic lighting emits an intensity of 200-500 lux – but the minimum dose needed to treat SAD is 2,500 lux. You can find advice on lightboxes on the SAD Association website.
  3. Take vitamin D. Vitamin D is created from sunlight on the skin – the very thing you’re missing. Between October and March in the Northern Hemisphere, we don’t make enough vitamin D from sunlight. While a small number of foods contain vitamin D, the best alternative is to take a supplement. For many years now, the NHS has advised all adults to take a vitamin D supplement in the winter months. Vitamin D also helps boost the immune system. Find out more about vitamin D on the NHS website – including recommended dosages.
  4. Eat and drink well. Although you might have cravings for carbs and sugary snacks, a healthy, balanced diet will help you feel better. Drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated, as this will help keep you energised and alert. And try to avoid alcohol, as this can make you feel worse.
  5. Exercise – preferably outdoors. The mental health benefits of exercise are well-documented. Exercise has been shown to be effective in reducing stress, anxiety and depression. And it’s good for your physical health and energy levels too. Plus, if you struggle with SAD, getting outside into natural daylight has added benefits. So try to time your outdoor exercise for midday, when the sun is at its highest. Even a short walk will help
  6. Manage your stress levels. Easier said than done – but learning to manage your stress levels is an essential life skill that will stand you in good stead. Deep breathing exercises and practicing mindful meditation can be very helpful.
  7. Don’t take on too much. If you know that you regularly feel more tired in the winter, try to plan ahead. Are there meetings or events you can reschedule? Depending on your job, you may not have much control over your day-to-day workload. But if you are able to schedule big, new projects for a time of year when you have more energy, you’ll be more productive, better able to cope with them, and feel less stressed about your responsibilities. You may be able to book a holiday in winter (ideally somewhere sunny!) or ease back on family or social responsibilities. Don’t feel bad about not going to all those Christmas parties if you know you’ll just be too knackered to enjoy yourself!
  8. Practice self-care. Don’t forget to schedule ‘me time’ just for you. The Danish have a great concept for a sort of self-care cosiness that’s particularly popular in the winter, which you may have heard of: hygge. Think drinking hot chocolate while reading your favourite book by a fireside wrapped in a blanket and surrounded by candles! Or meeting friends for a cosy coffee, sugary buns and a chat. It’s a great way to slow down, take things easy, pursue small pleasures and look after yourself in the winter months. Find out more about how to hygge in The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking.
  9. Stay in touch. You might not feel like going out much – and that’s fine – but try not to cut yourself off from social support. Even a phone call or a Zoom coffee with a friend can help you feel more connected. And if you can manage some exercise, going for a walk, light jog or cycle ride with a friend will have multiple benefits. You may be able to join a support group. SAD is an often misunderstood condition, and speaking to people with a similar experience can make you feel less isolated. In the UK, you can also join the SAD Association.
  10. Talk to someone. Talking to friends, family members and fellow SAD sufferers can help you feel less alone. And talking therapies – such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – can also be very helpful. Find out how you can get started with My Online Therapy. You may also find our Self-care course ‘Deal with Depression’ helpful.

Winter can fill some of us with dread, knowing it might herald the start of months of exhaustion and misery. But it really doesn’t have to. With the right help, support and management, you can bring your SAD under control, and your symptoms to manageable levels. So you can enjoy life all year round – and not only survive but thrive in the winter.