Living with Seasonal Affective Disorder

As we enter the part of the year where days are shortest, as many as 21% of people will struggle with low mood, lethargy and other symptoms of depression.

As November ends and December begins, the length of the day rapidly decreases until by the Winter Solstice on 21st and 22nd December, here in the UK we will be receiving less than 8 hours of sunlight per day. That means we will be spending two thirds of our time in darkness.

With long, dark nights, the flu season and cold, wet weather that keeps us indoors, it’s little wonder that many of us feel glum. But there is a big difference between glumness and depression which is often misunderstood by those who have never suffered from depression. When you’re just feeling down, you can “just snap out of it” and decide to do something satisfying. For those who suffer from depression, it’s a different story.

In terms of experience at least, depression is characterised by a persistent low mood, lack of energy and an inability to be happy. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that manifests during the winter months and it is thought that reduced light levels affect the functioning of a structure in the brain called the hypothalamus, which is involved in the regulation of mood. Because SAD is connected with light levels, you may find it helpful to buy a light box (which mimics natural light), or ask your GP to refer you to a SAD clinic, where you may be able to get one on loan.

The NHS website characterises SAD as having the following symptoms:

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

Many people with SAD will have thoughts like:

“I feel so low, and I have no idea why”.

“No matter what I do, I just can’t feel happy”.

“I feel like I put on a happy mask to talk to people, but behind it I’m so unhappy”.

“It comes on every year, about November time, I can feel it. I know it’s coming”.

The problem is that we live in a society where many people don’t realise the distinction between depression and a low mood that will pass. Those who suffer from SAD are often seen as weak and feel ashamed as isolated, which increases the low mood associated with their depression.

The good news is that recovery from depression is possible with the right support and lifestyle changes. The first thing to realise is it’s not your fault. It might help you enormously to reach out to someone who genuinely understands, cares and wants to help you on your terms. Private counselling and/or group support can be invaluable in this regard. Alternatively, you could contact your GP who may prescribe medication and/or may refer you for ongoing clinical care.

If you feel that you are severely affected by depression to the extent that you find it difficult or impossible to function in daily living, I strongly encourage you to contact your GP.

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu in 600BC is credited with saying, “The journey of one thousand miles starts beneath one’s feet”. What he meant was that if a person can accept him (or her) self, exactly as he/she is in the current moment, then change will begin to happen. In my experience, that is true for many people in many different situations, including those suffering from SAD. You can adjust to living with SAD. It need no longer rule your life.

There are numerous organisations throughout the UK offering acceptance and support for those affected by SAD, here are a few links to websites that my clients have found useful:

Note – Living Therapy is in no way affiliated with the above websites, they are posted here for information only.

30th November 2015