Seasonal affective disorder is a change in mood that begins during autumn and lasts until the end of winter – of course, the time when daylight is shorter.
The reduction in sunlight leads to a decrease in chemical messengers in the brain that stimulate positive feelings. It can also cause confusion with your body clock making you feel off. These two components can affect your mood and bring on, or exacerbate, symptoms of anxiety, depression or bipolar disorders.
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can include:
- Low energy
- Decreased interest in things you normally like to do
- Poor sleep patterns
- Feelings of agitation
- Decreased concentration
- Sufferers may experience weight gain; seeking comfort food is more common in dark, cold months than warmer, sunny months.
Thankfully, thoughts of suicide or self-harm are generally very rare in people suffering from seasonal affective disorder, unless there is an underlying medical condition.
Some people are more prone to seasonal affective disorder than others. Young females with a history of mental disorders or a family history of similar illnesses are most likely to be affected.
Seasonal affective disorder is also more common in populations that are located further from the equator, where days are shorter during the cold winter months.
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are many medical options for seasonal affective disorder; psychotherapy, medication and light therapy.
However, lifestyle changes have been shown to be equally effective in treating the symptoms of psychological illnesses such as anxiety and depression. These lifestyle changes include making your environment sunnier and brighter, getting outside and exercising more.
Create a brighter environment
Increasing the amount of light filtering into your workplace and home environment can help expose your body to more sunlight.
Open blinds, sit closer to windows that are in direct sunlight and remove clutter from around the windows. This may require trimming of overgrown trees, which can be costly, but the increase in exposure will help get you the maximum benefit of sunlight in the short time that the sun is shining.
Spending time outside in the sunlight is one of the easiest ways to increase your exposure to sun, however, it is sometimes the hardest to do because of work, family or other commitments.
Try going outdoors within the first two hours after you wake up. That timing has proved to be most beneficial in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. It leads to a better mood at the start of the day that will help improve mood for the remainder of the day.
Exercise — endurance sports in particular — helps to combat the effects of seasonal affective disorder.
In the short term, running helps to lift your mood through a release of endorphins. This “runner’s high” temporarily helps to improve mood and has been shown to be just as effective for some people as cognitive behavioural therapy and psychiatric medication in the treatment of anxiety and depression.
With regular exercise, this effect becomes more consistent and continually reduces the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
In the long term, exercise also helps to improve self-image and reduce the symptoms of any pre-existing medical conditions which can contribute to the onset of seasonal affective disorder.
Reducing these symptoms allows for the body to create a buffer against the effects of decreased daylight hours. This means that instead of shorter days being the final straw, your body will be able to handle the changes and experience fewer seasonal affective disorder symptoms.
Running proves to impact mood best when there is greater social interaction and the run is completed earlier in the day. When you run early, that “runner’s high” lasts during your waking hours – improving your mood for when you need it the most.