Winter can put many of us into a state of despair, writes Colm Fitzpatrick
Many people look forward to the winter season where you can build snowmen, drink hot chocolate by the fire and cosy up with a Christmas movie. However, this idyllic image of these icy months isn’t shared by everyone – most summer-lovers dread the thought of each passing day becoming colder and darker.
This, of course, is understandable. Winter doesn’t come without it challenges: shorter days, dry skin, slippery roads and runny noses. Indeed, according to most online polls, winter is people’s least favourite season.
While some are impervious to the effects of howling winds and bone-chilling nights, there is a large demographic who particularly struggle at this time of year.
Seasonal Affective Disorder – its acronym appropriately being titled SAD – is a mood disorder or type of depression that arises during particular seasons. Although it can occur at any time, most people experience it during the winter months when the temperature has significantly dropped and the sun is shining less.
This isn’t a condition exclusive to people already suffering with a mental health problem; SAD also affects those who are relatively psychologically well throughout the rest of the year.
The symptoms of SAD differ from person to person, but according to the NHS, those suffering can experience:
- a persistent low mood
- a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
- feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
- feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
- sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
- craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
It’s unclear why SAD develops – various theories have been presented although there is no overriding scientific consensus on the matter. A popular suggestion is that the lack of sunlight during winter can have a negative effect on the brain. This reduced exposure may, for example, produce higher levels of melatonin which makes the body sleepy, or alternatively decrease serotonin levels which are associated with depression.
Another possible cause may be that your body clock becomes disrupted – we’re all used to a daily routine but when days are shorter and darker, your body may get confused and act in an adverse way.
Regardless of what its exact cause is, the effects are very real and must be treated seriously.
There is a common stigma about SAD and depression in general which assumes that you can simply overcome it through willpower or by taking a few days off work. People underestimate how much of a grip these mental illnesses can take on your day-to-day life, and this kind of attitude only makes the sufferer feel more alienated.
According to Mental Health Ireland, one in four people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their life, which is worsened by social stigma and discrimination.
“Many people’s problems are made worse by the stigma and discrimination they experience – from society, but also from families, friends and employers.
“Nearly nine out of 10 people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives.”
A common treatment of SAD is light therapy where you sit or work near a device called a light therapy box”
In an environment where this disorder is underplayed or mocked, those struggling with it will feel even more excluded and unwell. Suffers of SAD don’t just experience physiological changes or chemical imbalances in the brain – its impact is also social. A partner may wonder why their significant other is becoming distant and irate or a close friend might be confused about why one of their outgoing buddies hasn’t spoken to them in a while. When the days feel grey and empty, the prospect of speaking or socialising with others can seem like an arduous affair. Those struggling might isolate themselves from the outside world resulting in cutting off loved ones.
It can be frightening to develop this disorder and not know where to turn. Luckily, there are ways to manage SAD and while these treatments might not eradicate it completely they will improve your mood and overall quality of life.
A common treatment of SAD is light therapy where you sit or work near a device called a light therapy box. The box illuminates a light that mimics natural sunlight, thereby reducing the negative effects associated with truncated exposure to light during winter. The sessions can be done at home using a rented light box so it’s certainly worth considering.
If this isn’t appealing, eating healthily and taking exercise more seriously can have formative impact on your mood. This advice is usually fobbed off as an overused cliché, but numerous studies have shown the benefits that physical activity can have on your body and mind.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry which looked at samples worldwide suggested that exercise had a protective effect on the risk of developing depression.
The researchers said: “Our results indicate that higher levels of physical activity offer a protective effect on future development of depression for people of all ages (youths, working-age adults, elderly persons) and this finding is robust across geographical regions around the world.” It can be difficult to muster up the courage to put on some active gear and begin running or weight-lifting, so try exercising with a friend. You’ll support one another and be more likely to stick with it.
It’s normal to feel morose during winter, but if you’re finding it difficult to sleep or experiencing extreme feelings of despair, you might be experiencing SAD”
Another less strenuous activity that the Irish are well-accustomed to is having a cup of tea and a chat. Just talking to a friend or relative can ease the emotional burden sufferers are facing and make the world seem like a friendly place again. If experiencing SAD become too much of a psychological toil and is having a drastic impact on your everyday life, it’s recommended that you speak to a counsellor who can offer you more clinical advise about your circumstances in the hope of finding a lasting solution.
It’s normal to feel morose during winter, but if you’re finding it difficult to sleep or experiencing extreme feelings of despair, you might be experiencing SAD. If that’s the case, seek out the right help to ensure you make the most of the season and all it has to offer.