Understanding your autumn blues

As the days grow shorter, you may find yourself suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

In Malta, we barely have four seasons as our climate tends to shift from summer to winter within a few days.  As a result, this may make the transition that some people go through when changing their routine from long summer days to short cold winter days all the more challenging. 

It’s now the end of October and our weather is still rather warm and sunny.  But what happens when we turn our clocks backward and start having shorter days?  Some people may experience what is called Seasonal Affective Disorder or what may also be known as ‘winter depression’. The depressive symptoms cased by SAD tend to be more apparent and extreme during winter. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

SAD is a type of depression that is highly related to seasonal changes.  People with SAD have symptoms typically starting and ending around the same time every year.  For most, symptoms start in autumn and continue throughout the winter months.  As spring and summer months approach, these symptoms start to resolve themselves.  However, this is not the same for everyone.

Some symptoms may include:

  • low mood for more than a few weeks
  • loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • lacking in energy and sleepy during the day
  • oversleeping or difficulty sleeping
  • difficulty concentrating and irritable

Why do some people suffer from SAD?

The exact causes of this disease are still not fully recognized.  However, one of its main triggers seems to be the reduced exposure to sunlight during the fall and winter months. The majority of research suggests that lack of sunlight might stop the hypothalamus from working properly.  This in turn, affects the production of melatonin (a hormone that affects sleep), the production of serotonin (a hormone that affects mood, appetite and sleep) and the body’s internal clock. 

Research suggests that SAD is hereditary and therefore, some people have higher risk of SAD as a result of their genetics.  Moreover, people who already suffer from bipolar disorder seem to be at an increased risk of SAD.

Is there anything I can do to prevent SAD?

The good news is that SAD is very predictable due to its timing.  Therefore, individuals who are at a higher risk of getting SAD can prepare for it.  This preparation might include starting early treatment.

What treatment is available?

There are 5 main treatments available, and ideally one would discuss this with their psychiatrist in order to see which treatment would be most suitable for them.

  • Light Therapy – a special lamp known as light box, is used to simulate exposure to sunlight
  • Therapy – such as counselling and psychotherapy
  • Medication – specifically antidepressants such as SSRIs
  • Lifestyle – regular exercise, managing stress levels and better nutrition
  • Vitamin D – some research suggests that high Vitamin D can help prevent SAD

A lot of people who may be suffering from SAD, are not aware of it.  Some tend to brush it off as ‘winter blues’ and will try to get through this difficult period on their own.  However, help is available; so take the necessary steps to keep feeling like yourself throughout the whole year.

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