When it's more than just SAD


This Winter we’re going to talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), sometimes also known as ‘the winter blues’. As the name suggests, SAD is something that typically strikes in the cooler darker months – from the end of autumn and through winter. While many of us will feel a bit flat over winter, SAD is considered a type of depression and can seriously affect quality of life.

We’ve crept out from under the doona to look at three different perspectives on SAD, and what to do if it happens to you. Clinical psychologists Amanda Sie and Katie Dobinson, part of the innovative self-help THIS WAY UP initiative; Amino Neuro Frequency (ANF) Holistic Therapist Claire Dunkley; and Wellness Coach Jenni Limb share their expertise with us here.


Is SAD basically depression?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is more certainly more serious than just feeling a bit flat, or what we might call ‘the winter blues’. SAD is identified as a mood disorder when a person's low mood is overwhelming or impacting their functioning. THIS WAY UP’s Amanda Sie explains that while there are a whole range of overlapping symptoms, there is one important difference.

‘For example, you might be feeling persistently sad or low, not enjoying pleasurable activities, having low motivation and poor concentration. You might also be prone to tearfulness, changes in sleep and appetite, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or even thinking about death.‘

People with SAD, however, tend to experience these depressive symptoms exclusively during the cooler months, and start to feel better when Spring starts. Many people with SAD will be well aware of this pattern repeating from year to year.’


Is it just because we aren't getting outside enough?

THIS WAY UP’s Katie Dobinson says it is extremely common for many people's moods to be a bit affected in winter.

'We are all affected by the reduced sunlight and colder temperatures in winter and spending less time outside and in nature can affect mood. One of the reasons we feel down is because we are less physically active, less socially connected and we might also be changing our eating or sleeping habits, all of which can make us feel lower than usual.’

Claire Dunkley points out that changing levels of melatonin within your body can also play a role. ‘Melatonin production is very closely linked with our circadian rhythms, so if your sleep patterns are disrupted, your melatonin levels can drop, leading to feelings of depression. ‘Melatonin is king of the immune system and lack of melatonin can affect serotonin production – the ‘happy hormone’ – and then you get depressive symptoms.’


SAD or am I depressed?

SAD is actually more common in the Northern Hemipshere of Australia because of our milder winters. However, even a more moderate winter can affect the way we feel, and acknowledging that can help us make deliberate decisions around lifestyle factors to help manage our mood. Amanda suggests that the first port of call for anyone worried about their mood or mental health should be their local doctor, or GP.

‘GPs are trained to assess, diagnose and treat mental health difficulties, and they can refer you to mental health specialists, like clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, for further assessment and treatment if they think it is necessary.' ‘Part of that assessment process is to work out whether there might be other reasons why you might be feeling depressed – whether you are experiencing stressful life circumstances, illness, grief and loss or relationship issues, for example.  


So how do I un-SAD?

It’s important to try and get outside into the sunlight when you can during winter. Exposure to sun is one of our major sources of Vitamin D – important for the body’s ability to absorb calcium and phosphate, but also very important for brain health.

 There have been many studies – including a recent study by the University of Georgia that have linked low vitamin D levels with greater risk of SAD. Light exercise is also great for your mental health as it generates those ‘feel-good’ chemicals, endorphins and dopamine.

Katie Dobinson recommends Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) either with a clinician or online for those suffering with more persistent symptoms. THIS WAY UP offers self-paced online courses for a range of mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. ‘But there are many other evidence-based treatments for SAD as well, which can include antidepressant medication, and/or light therapy.’

Jenni Limb swears by Australia Bush Flowers essential oils. ‘I have found the Bush Flowers to be both an instant boost and a long-term dissolver of that mood. ‘I like a blend of Bush Iris with Sunshine Wattle to treat clients feeling those SAD symptoms of hopelessness. But if symptoms are severe, I also add Peach Flowered Tea Tree – which is especially helpful if you’re the type of person who turns to sugar to ease feelings of boredom and listlessness.’

For Claire, part of the answer lies in going with the flow. ‘Take advantage of the shorter days. Turn the lights off and go to bed when it’s dark! ‘In summer, you're more likely to be out and about running around. The sun's up so you're out later. In winter, just take advantage of it, get some sleep because sleep is the most powerful thing that you can do to boost your immune system. She also recommends gentle exercise, fresh nourishing food and dressing in layers. ‘What’s that saying? There’s no so thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.’


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  • Alexandra Stewart
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