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What does SAD look like?

This page created 14th July 2014

By Maddy (ADAVIC Volunteer)

Six years ago, I uprooted myself from the tropics where sunshine is taken for granted and the temperature rarely falls below 20 degrees and planted myself in Australia, a country of four distinct seasons. I thrived in my new surroundings as spring and summer rolled along merrily. But then winter came and something started happening to me. The first thing I noticed was that I just couldn’t get out of bed in the mornings. I would sleep through three alarms and sleep from ten to fourteen hours a day. No matter how much I slept, I just felt drained of energy and my body felt like a heavy sack I had to carry around. Not surprisingly, I found it almost impossible to make it to morning classes or early shifts at work. Even if I managed to drag myself to class, I couldn’t concentrate. My brain felt foggy, my eyes felt droopy and my body felt sluggish.  I also found myself craving carbs all the time and putting on weight. Even activities I once enjoyed like socializing with friends and going out to dinner felt like an enormous effort   because all I wanted to do was curl up in bed. My friends began to wonder out loud whether I was “hibernating for the winter.” 
What is SAD?

So what was sapping my energy and good cheer? It turned out that I was experiencing a milder form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (clinical name which produces the cute acronym SAD), known colloquially as winter depression or winter blues, which shows itself in a spectrum of severity. At the severe end of the spectrum, in addition to the low energy and sleep issues discussed earlier, SAD sufferers may also experience seasonal patterns of depressed mood, usually in the autumn or winter. This might include feelings of hopelessness or pessimism; persistent sad, anxious or empty feelings; irritability or restlessness and even suicidal thoughts.
The specific causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder remain unknown but it is clear that individuals who experience SAD symptoms are particularly sensitive to light (or lack of it). Reduced levels of sunlight in late autumn and winter can disturb your body’s internal clock (circadian rhythms) which lets you know when it is time to sleep and time to wake up. This might explain the disrupted sleep patterns SAD sufferers experience during winter. Lower levels of sunlight can also disturb the balance of the hormone melatonin in the body which regulates sleep and mood.  Reduced levels of sunlight can also cause a drop in the body’s production of serotonin, a brain chemical that is important for regulating mood which might explain the depressed mood symptoms.
How do I manage my SAD? 
Change your daily routine to maximise sun exposure.
Since it is clear that SAD sufferers are particularly sensitive to lack of sunlight, the most intuitive way of managing your SAD would be to change your routine to get maximum sun exposure. If at all possible, switch to a bedroom with a window so that your body can get wake up cues from the morning sun. Taking a walk in the morning is another way to soak up the scraps of sunlight available over the winter months. Yoga practice has consistently been shown to lower depressed mood, so a targeted intervention for depression in the winter would be to practise yoga outdoors in the morning. Whenever you see sunshine, run out and soak it up. Try to spend some time outside every day even if it’s cloudy, because every little bit of daylight helps.
Light therapy
If your winter depression is severe, or if there is very little sunlight available even in the mornings, you might consider bright light therapy. Extensive research has shown that bright light therapy can boost mood and energy over winter months.  This therapy involves a special lamp in the form of a light box which produces artificial light that imitate the sun’s rays. Light therapy involves a daily commitment of exposing yourself to the light box for half an hour each morning. More recently, light therapy has become available in the form of a dawn-simulating wake up alarm which gradually exposes you to simulated sunlight in the mornings. It’s a good idea to start using the light box when autumn starts even before you start feeling the effects of SAD.
Eat a well-balanced diet and make sure you are getting enough Vitamin D
Even if your body is constantly craving starchy and sweet foods over the winter, make sure you eat a well-balanced diet to keep your energy levels up. Vitamin D has been called the “sunshine vitamin” because research suggests that there might be a link between D deficiency and depression. Since a large proportion of Australians (58%) have been found to be Vitamin D deficient, it might be a good idea to get your vitamin D levels checked and any deficiencies addressed.
SAD-tailored CBT
SAD sufferers have also been shown to have strong negative beliefs and feelings about winter. For example, people with SAD say that they hate winter and can’t bring themselves to do anything they enjoy during winter months. Cognitive behavioural therapy targeted at SAD can help people challenge their strong negative beliefs and attitudes about winter and help them cope more effectively with winter time. Similarly, SAD sufferers may have unhelpful beliefs about sleep over winter that need to be worked on.

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