It seems that all of us Canberrans are feeling the effects of the change in season over the past few weeks. Heading into winter, the days are only due to get shorter and colder. This can potentially have a significant affect on individual’s mental health and mood.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a well-documented phenomenon which occurs in conjunction with changes in season. SAD is considered a sub-type of depression, and as such, symptoms of SAD closely mimic those of depression. However in the SAD sub-type symptoms are limited to approximately the same times each year, with patterns established over a period of years. Predominately SAD symptoms begin in Autumn/Winter and relieve in Spring/Summer, although SAD can be experienced with any seasonal change. SAD is understandably more common in the Northern Hemisphere where the changes in season are more pronounced. However SAD or symptoms of SAD can still be experienced in Australia although rarely extreme enough to meet full diagnostic criteria.
Even without reaching the full criteria for SAD, most people experience changes in their energy, motivation, sleeping patterns and mood as the seasons change.
Common symptoms of SAD include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Sleeping difficulties, including oversleeping
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Difficulty concentrating
- Suicidal ideation or thoughts of death
The direct cause of SAD remains unconfirmed, however there are a few factors which are widely thought to contribute to this phenomena.
- Reduced sunlight can affect the body’s circadian rhythms (internal body clock), which can lead to feelings of depression.
- Reduction in exposure to sunlight can cause a drop in Serotonin levels, which can lead to feelings of depression. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood.
- Disruptions to Melatonin (a type of hormone) levels, which can affect sleeping patterns and mood.
As you can see by the current known contributing factors to developing SAD or SAD symptoms, the amount of natural light you are exposed to is a greater contributing factor than the colder weather. However when it is colder outside, it becomes less enticing to go out and experience daylight.
Whilst winter is an inevitable experience and can be particularly harsh in Canberra (by our standards at least), luckily there are a few things that you can do which can help to minimise the effects the colder weather has on your well-being. You do not need to wait until the weather is warm again to live the life you want to.
The Australia Psychological Society (2005) has provided these simple tips to stay on top of your mood during the winter months:
- Ensure you get at least one hour of outdoor light each day (preferably in the morning).
- Make an effort to keep up your social life.
- Make sure you keep active with continuing exercise.
Whilst maintaining these things can take considerably more effort than during the warmer months, they can easily be achieved with some simple planning.
There is an old Norwegian/Swedish (origins are unclear) saying – “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”. Ensuring you have adequate heating in your environment, appropriate clothing and plans for activities can help to get you moving. A conscious effort to ensure that these basic things continue to occur even when the weather is more conducive to staying rugged up inside can help to significantly minimise depressive symptoms, increase energy levels and lift mood.
SAD or any of the symptoms associated with it, can be effectively treatment with psychological intervention. If you find you are struggling to stay on top of things, have low mood or decreased motivation you can contact us at Strategic Psychology to arrange for an appointment with one of our psychologists. Psychological intervention can assist assist you with living the life you want to live throughout the colder months and into the future.
Australian Psychological Society (2005). Media Release: How to Beat the Blues this Winter! Retrieved from http://www.psychology.org.au/news/media_releases/20jun2005/
Cleveland Clinic (2013). Seasonal Depression. Retrieved from http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/neurological_institute/center-for-behavorial-health/disease-conditions/hic-seasonal-depression
Mayo Clinic (2014). Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/definition/con-20021047