SAD but True

In a survey carried out by YouGov in collaboration with the Weather Channel it was suggested that 8% of the sample of 2031 people experience acute Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), this equates to an equivalent of 5 million people in the UK. Not only was this twice what had previously been estimated, but the survey also suggested a further 21% of the population experience milder symptoms.

What is SAD?

A woman looking at the camera with the lower half of her face covered with a scarfSAD is sometimes known as “winter depression” as it is most often associated with winter months. Symptoms include:

  • Lack of energy
  • Disrupted sleep (sleeping during the day or for longer than normal)
  • Difficulty getting up in the morning
  • Anxiety
  • Low mood or depression
  • Irritability
  • Changes in appetite (particularly craving carbs)

Women are 40% more likely to experience SAD than men and the evidence suggests that people with brown eyes are more likely to experience SAD than those with blue eyes.

Although the exact cause of SAD is not known, the majority of the evidence suggests that it is linked with the reduction in daylight hours and the impact that this can have on our bodies circadian rhythm (our body clock) and a reduction in the production of the hormones melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin is the hormone associated with sleep and serotonin is associated with appetite, sleep and mood, with low levels of serotonin being linked to depression.

Is it treatable?

SAD is treatable insofar as it can be managed as opposed to ‘cured’.

  • If you are experiencing particularly low mood, speak to your GP, and if you are struggling, please remember there are always people available to listen to you, you can contact The Samaritans on 116 123
  • Good diet and avoidance of things like caffeine or sugar too late in the day can promote better sleep patterns, as can avoiding using screens late in the evening or turning them to night mode.
  • Exercise produces a number of chemicals which can help with feeling more positive and energised. Endorphins for example are associated with a positive sensation called ‘runners high’ and can help 
  • Try to maximise the amount of sunlight you get during a day; sit near windows or go for a walk outside at lunchtime. Getting out of bed at a time that maximises the amount of light available (i.e. sunrise) will also be of additional benefit

Tech can help

Light Boxes

Light boxes for SAD (not to be confused with those used for photography) are lamps that simulate the wavelength of sunlight and are thought to therefore ‘trick’ your body into maintaining melatonin levels. Light boxes should be at least 2,500 lux (10,000 lux is ideal) and should be certified for the treatment of SAD. It should be highlighted that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has stated that it is unclear whether this treatment is effective, but anecdotal evidence suggests some people find it helps them, so it is perhaps best to think of these solutions as ways of managing mood as opposed to treating depression.

Two pill-shaped Casper Glow lights partially dimmed sitting on a bedside table with some books and a pair of glassesThe Independent has produced a review of their top 10 light boxes for SAD.

Alarm Clocks

Sunrise-mimicking alarm clocks can also help with managing mood and lights like the ‘Casper Glow’ add an additional level of ‘techy-ness’ to this by pairing to each other and to an app on your smartphone. The (expensive) glow lights will also gradually dim if turned upside-down and are portable, providing a low-level light when shaken that allows you to see, but minimises sleep disturbance if you need to get up in the night.

Smart lighting

Modern smart bulbs and smart homes can also be programmed with ‘routines’ that gradually light a room in the morning to wake you up more naturally; an artificial sunrise to slowly stir you from your slumber. These can also be programmed with a night-time routine that gradually dims your lights over about half an hour, preparing your body for sleep.

There's an app for that...

A close-up of a hand holding a mobile phoneThere are a number of apps that can help us to manage our physical and mental health and minimise the impact of conditions such as SAD. These apps can track mood, monitor sleep, promote general wellbeing as well as signposting human help. We’ve picked some examples below:

  • Sleep cycle: This app is a ‘smart’ alarm clock that reportedly tracks your stage within the sleep cycle using the accelerometer on your phone or the apps 'patented sound technology'. It uses this data wake you up gradually during the lightest period of sleep. The app gives sleep statistics and daily graphs as well as providing a 'standard' instant wake up alarm.
  • Stop, Breathe & Think: This app provides tailored meditations according to how you feel. It does this by asking you a series of questions on how you are feeling physically, mentally and emotionally (all of which can be skipped) and then suggests a number of meditation or mindfulness techniques and exercises. Even if it’s nothing more than a random selection, it’s a nice way of presenting short activities.
  • Youper: A combination of the words You + Super, Youper is a chatbot-powered wellbeing app. The app monitors mood and provides anxiety and general mood-management based on established CBT techniques, mindfulness and personalised meditations.
  • Catch It: This was developed by the University of Liverpool Computing Services, Institute of Psychology Health and Society and in conjunction with the University of Manchester. It is a personal diary (PIN access) that works on CBT principals and asks you to record a feeling (anxiety, depression, anger, etc.); reflect on it, and then encourages you to re-frame how you are thinking about it “What would be a more helpful way to approach the situation?” 
  • Hub of Hope: The Hub of Hope app is a database of mental health support and services that uses your phones location to signpost the nearest to you. Although the core idea is to quickly provide information to people in crisis, the services signposted also include general preventative services. The website version of the service includes a postcode search and filtering options for different types of service.