• What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and what can you do to make the winter easier for yourself?

  • Welldoing.org's editor Alice McGurran has 9 tips to help you cope

  • If you are experiencing symptoms associated with SAD, you can find a counsellor or therapist here

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a cyclical depressive period which usually occurs in autumn and winter.

Sufferers are plagued with symptoms such as fatigue, increased appetite, loss of interest in daily activities, loss of libido, inability to focus and feelings of anxiety and irritability. People may automatically turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, which in turn can make symptoms worse.

SAD is thought to be caused by the lack of sunlight in the winter months. The lack of sunlight is thought to affect the functioning of your hypothalamus, the part of your brain which has the not-so-easy job of regulating your moods, appetite, sex drive, temperature and sleeping patterns.

Without enough sunlight your hypothalamus cannot produce enough of the hormone melatonin, which regulates our sleeping pattern, or the hormone serotonin, which regulates moods. It also means your body's circadian rhythm (body clock) gets confused.

We've come this far into the winter, but the early months of the year can be really tough for those with SAD. So here's some tips to help.

1) Maximise your exposure to daylight

Get outside everyday to take in as much light as possible. If you're at home or at work, do your best to sit by a window, keeping the blinds open. Have a look at your home - is it time to redecorate? Having lighter coloured walls and furniture can help brighten the space.

2) Eat properly

  • Try to cut out sugar - it can hinder the body's ability to cope with stress and anxiety. Many people crave the instant energy hit sugar can offer, but it will leave you feeling low when the high wears off.
  • Increase your intake of Omega-3 - this can help maintain levels of serotonin. Other than oily fish, you can also find it in flaxseed, hemp and walnuts.
  • Eat fruit - apricots, pears, apples, grapes, plums and grapefruits all help increase your serotonin levels and keep them up. Bananas are just great - potassium and natural carbs to fuel your brain and magnesium to help improve sleep and reduce anxiety.
  • Make sure you are getting vitamin D and vitamin B12

3) Exercise consistently

Exercise can boost your mood, improve sleep and help you cope with stress and anxiety. Swimming once a week can help improve your energy levels and improve your mood, especially if you can take advantage of a sauna afterwards and soak up some heat. If you don't feel capable of strenuous exercise, simply getting out for a walk can be helpful.

4) Take some time off in winter

Don't take all your holidays in the summer, if possible save some and chase the sun for a week in the winter. The flights are often cheaper that time of year which is an extra bonus. For some however the abrupt changes between sunlight levels abroad and then having to return to the UK can make SAD symptoms worse. Consider how it could make you feel and work out what's best for you.

5) Consider light therapy

I have a light box and I can say that, though I haven't used it as much in London, it saw me through my winters in dark, dark Scotland. It works by mimicking natural light and can cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.

There are also alarms called 'Dawn Simulators' which work by gradually getting brighter and gently waking you up.

7) Spend time with friends

Though it may be the last thing you want to do when you're feeling down, try to get out and socialise with people who make you feel loved and supported. Having a laugh is really important.

8) Manage stress

If possible, avoid stress. But since that's not likely to be possible, protect yourself and learn some techniques which work for you in terms of managing stress levels. Try to plan ahead if winter is a busy period for you, so you can prepare yourself and make sure you give yourself enough chill time. If you know you have big stressful life changes coming up, such as changing job or moving house, plan to carry them out in the summer if possible.

Consider engaging in mindfulness practice to help you cope with stress and anxiety. Mindfulness focuses on taking a present-focused and non-judgmental stance towards thoughts and feelings. By learning how to change your perspective on your thoughts, you can distance yourself from negative thoughts and feelings that may affect your performance in areas such as sleeping, eating healthily, maintaining relationships and being productive.

9) Remember that SAD is a form of depression

It's not just the winter blues and so is best diagnosed and treated by a mental health professional. Although SAD has biological roots, it's often accompanied by negative automatic thoughts.

CBT can be particularly useful in treating SAD. CBT works by helping you to identify and change the connections between your thoughts and behaviours. In this way it can help with SAD by helping you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviours that may be making you feel worse.

In this study, Rohan discovered that light therapy, CBT and a combination of the two were all effective in helping SAD. When they checked a year later, those who had been treated with CBT were faring much better than those who had been treated by light therapy. Of the study, only 7% of those treated with CBT had recurring symptoms, compared to 36.7% of those treated with light therapy. CBT and other forms of talking therapy can also help identify other problems which might be making your SAD symptoms worse.

What can I do to help someone with SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder can have a massive impact on someone's life, leaving them burdened with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. People with these depressive feelings often find it hard to see their friends and family, however this may be the time that they need you most. Your gentle presence in their life can be very important. Be patient, talk to them, listen, and encourage them to get appropriate help. Remind them of the things they can do to help themselves feel better.

Further reading

Shedding light on vitamin D

How to boost your energy levels in the winter

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): channel your inner squirrel

How can we get enough vitamin D in winter?