SAD: The mental illness nobody talks about

It’s estimated that 1 in 15 people in the UK suffer from it[1], but how often do we hear about Seasonal Affective Disorder, also know as SAD? Until I was diagnosed with it myself, I admittedly knew very little about the illness. I’d spent a lot of my life thinking I just had to live with becoming a completely different person in Winter. Sure, I’d heard about the ‘winter blues’ but it never seemed to be portrayed as a serious issue. Finding out I had SAD was actually a huge relief; I think it’s comforting being able to put a name to something that’s kind of hard to put into words. I guess it’s nice to know that what your experiencing isn’t completely abnormal, and is totally valid and real. After many years of navigating this disorder, I’ve learnt a lot; from the facts and science behind it, to the best ways of managing it. I thought it would be nice to share some of my personal coping mechanisms. I think a lot of people probably suffer from the ‘Winter Blues’ on some level, so perhaps some of these strategies could be of help.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression which usually occurs between the months of September and April (although this varies from person to person), and is caused by the shorter daylight hours in Winter. Simply put, SAD is caused primarily by the brain producing too much Melatonin – a chemical which is produced in the dark, making us feel tired and ready to sleep. In theory, it’s very useful, but too much can be problematic and lead to symptoms such as low mood, tiredness, difficulty concentrating, lowered immune system and sleeping problems. It can also cause a sudden lift in mood and bursts of hypo-mania (over-activity) in Spring[2]. Seen as it’s around the time of year when SAD tends to set in, I reckon it’s a perfect time to share a few little tricks that could help alleviate these symptoms.

1. Get outdoors

As I mentioned earlier, SAD is basically caused by the lack of daylight in the Winter months. Getting outside for a walk or something similar can help in two ways. Firstly, outside light from the sun is way more powerful than indoor lights, even on a murky day. Secondly, if going outside involves some exercise as well, endorphin levels will increase, boosting the feel good factor even more.

2. SAD lamp

Although getting outdoors more often should be beneficial, it may not always be enough. If this is the case, light therapy may be an option. Medically certified light therapy lamps produce artificial sunlight, and when used for 30 minutes early in the morning and 30 minutes at night (or whatever your GP advises) they can make a real difference. They essentially fool the brain into thinking the days are longer. It’s about this time of year I start using my lamp, and in previous years I’ve found it really effective in reducing symptoms.

3. Schedule some me time

It’s so important to set time aside every day to look after yourself, or to do something you enjoy. It could be as simple as having a long bath or reading a chapter of a book – anything that nurtures your soul. Looking after yourself is not selfish, it’s a necessity.

4. Get moving

I can’t stress enough the power of exercise when it comes to mental health care. I’m certainly not trying to suggest that exercise alone can ‘cure’ a mental illness, but I know from experience it can be a really useful tool. As I mentioned earlier, exercise increases endorphin levels, subsequently improving your mood – and the good news is you don’t need tons of exercise to feel the benefits. If working out isn’t really your thing, something as simple as a few short walks per week could well be enough to feel some improvements.

5. Take care of the little things

This might seem like a strange one, but I honestly find that the little things really add up and end up having such an impact on my state of mind. Especially if you’re not feeling so good, small things like keeping your room tidy, looking after your skin or wearing an outfit you feel good in can make such a difference.

6. Make time for sleep

We’ve all heard it a million times, but there’s so many reasons why. Sleep is great for pretty much every aspect of health, and mental health is no exception. Having battled with insomnia for a few years, I know this all too well and now value sleep enormously. A good snooze every night allows the body to repair itself, and the mind to process information (dreams are more productive than you may think!). Exactly how much sleep we need varies from person to person, but once you start paying more attention to your sleep routine, your body will soon tell you the answer to that.

7. Be gentle with yourself

If you do find things harder during the winter months, one of the best things you can do is to be gentle with yourself. Remember that it’s not your fault you feel this way, make yourself a plan of action and simply do you best. This is all you can ever do and all anyone else can ask of you. Remember to put yourself first and prioritise your own needs, especially when things are tough.

8. Visit the GP

Lastly, but most importantly, if you suspect something may be wrong, go to your GP for advice. The tips I’m giving here are purely things I’ve learnt through my own experiences, and certainly won’t apply to everyone. I’m not a professional, just someone sharing her own ideas and hoping they might be of help to someone else. Reaching out to someone qualified to provide the right sort of help is the best thing you can do. If going to a GP is too daunting to begin with, maybe start by speaking to a friend or family member, or contacting one of the helplines listed on the Mental Health helplines NHS page.

[1] Mental Health Foundation. (2017). Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Mar. 2017].

[2] The Seasonal Affective Disorder Assosciation. 2016. Symptoms. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 9 March 2017].

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