Often called ‘winter depression’, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that follows seasonal patterns and is far more than simple ‘winter blues’. Despite the common name, the pattern can vary and some people find their symptoms worsen during the summer months.
‘The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, but it’s often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days. The main theory is that a lack of sunlight might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly.’
At this time of year, the days are beginning to grow shorter and those who struggle with SAD may be starting to feel the disorder rearing its head. Luckily, there are things that can be done to manage symptoms and make the winter a little easier.
Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder
Some people with seasonal depression may agree with their health provider to go on antidepressants with the intention of coming off them again as the seasons change. This is entirely a question of personal preference and what is believed to be the best for the individual. Some may feel antidepressants are not worth it for such a short period of time, others find this the easiest way to manage their symptoms.
For those who struggle in the winter months, many attribute this to lack of sunlight and shorter daylight hours. This can be combatted through the use of ‘SAD lamps’, very bright lamps that simulate sunlight and help regulate circadian rhythms as the nights grow longer. SAD lamps are incredibly bright so
Studies have shown that light therapy is an extremely effective method of treating SAD:
‘Fluoxetine did not offer an advantage over light therapy in SAD, underscoring the value of light therapy as a cost effective first-line treatment in this condition.’
The outcomes of this study suggest that ‘other clinical factors, including patient preference, should guide selection of first-line treatment.’ Having multiple treatment options gives people the opportunity to select the one that suits them best or even try a combination of the two.
SAD lamps are somewhat expensive with the Lumie Vitamin L retailing at around £75. Interestingly, the standard price is £90 but if you have SAD the product becomes VAT exempt. There are many other lamps out there, but this one has been recommended to some patients by NHS staff for its efficiency and lower price tag than some competitors. If you are considering a SAD lamp, be wary of seeking cheaper alternatives as they may not give out enough light to be effective.
That price tag may seem like a gamble for something you don’t know will be effective for you but, speaking from personal experience, they quickly earn their keep. However, the price remains too expensive for some, limiting their options for treatment. Frustratingly, paying for prescriptions over the lifetime of a SAD lamp would be more expensive than buying the lamp.
NICE guidelines recommend managing SAD in the same way that you would manage Depression, with additional focus on spending time outside. This includes Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), exercising, and discussing your needs and experience with your loved ones. NICE is still on the fence about light therapy, stating that ‘it’s not clear whether it’s effective.’
The one thing about Seasonal Affective Disorder that makes it easier to manage than ‘normal’ Depression is its predictability. Knowing that ‘winter depression’ is coming does not, however, make the symptoms any easier. In fact, knowing that it looms around the corner can make sufferers feel worse.
As the nights draw in and we wave goodbye to our brief British summer, people with SAD can take steps to proactively prepare for the coming months. This preparation can include checking in with health providers and discussing their treatment options, letting friends and family know that they may need additional support, and digging out their SAD lamp.
For those experiencing SAD for the first time this winter, seek advice from your GP or a mental health professional to ensure you take the steps that are right for you.
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