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Column: If long winter months fill you with dread, don't suffer in silence

For most people who have Seasonal Affective Disorder, the symptoms will typically start in the autumn and continue into the winter months.

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WITH THE CLOCKS recently going back and the evenings getting longer, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that winter is upon us again. While some people love the winter and all of the enjoyable things that go with it, for other people the onset of shorter days fills them with dread. That’s because they suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s directly related to changes in the seasons.

SAD is sometimes also referred to as the “winter blues” because the symptoms are more apparent at this time of year. Unlike other forms of depression, SAD has a finite duration, beginning and ending at about the same time every year. For most people who have SAD, the symptoms will typically start in the autumn and continue into the winter months. Sufferers complain of lower energy levels and feeling irritable or moody. They can also lack enthusiasm and oversleep and are prone to weight gain and changes in their appetite, which often results in a craving for foods that are high in carbohydrates.

Reduced sunlight levels

Why do some people suffer from SAD? It’s due to a combination of factors that are linked to the change in seasons. Being afflicted by SAD is partly due to the effect that reduced sunlight levels in autumn and winter have on the human biological clock.

A decrease in sunlight can disrupt the body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of tiredness, irritability and sometimes depression. Decreased sunlight levels can also trigger a fall in serotonin levels.

Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that affects moods and if there are reduced levels, it can lead to people suffering from the winter blues. The other element that has a link to the changing seasons is melatonin.

When summer moves into autumn and then winter, this change can disrupt the balance in the body’s melatonin levels. In turn, this can have an effect on sleep patterns and mood, which people with SAD suffer from.

Alleviating symptoms 

The good news for anyone who feels down during the winter months is that it’s possible to deal with SAD by making some simple lifestyle changes. Exercise will help you to overcome stress and anxiety as well as lifting your mood. If you don’t have the time to exercise during the working week, then taking a short walk during lunchtime is also effective. Although the temperature has dropped this week, there is still enough natural light and fresh air to have a positive effect on your mood.

Equally, people who are prone to mood swings during the winter months should also be conscious of the amount of time that they spend indoors – lack of light is not beneficial to SAD sufferers or indeed anyone.

It’s also important for those with SAD to eat a healthy diet – with an emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruit. Crucially, they should also socialise and meet friends or family and avoid isolating themselves.

If these feelings persist, it’s important that someone with SAD talks to a friend or relative. Failing that, they should seek professional advice and their GP can discuss treatment options such as medication, counselling, psychotherapy or light therapy (or a combination of therapies).

Most importantly, don’t suffer in silence over the long winter months.

Shane Kelly is Professional Services Manager with the IACP. For more information, see www.iacp.ie

 

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