Identifying and dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Muiris O'Cearbhaill

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD syndrome) is a condition that is a specifier to depressive disorders. As described by the American Psychiatric Association, it falls under disorders “with seasonal patterns” which do not include psychosocial stress, for example being unemployed during the winter.

It is stated that for a person to be diagnosed with this disorder, they must have had these depressive episodes for more than two years in a row. A positive change is needed at a different time during the year, where theses depressive episodes do not occur. 

Common symptoms may include, hopelessness, fatigue, change in sleeping pattern, tiredness, weight fluctuation, and mood swings. Winter blues, a condition that almost everyone is familiar to, and depression are very similar to SAD syndrome.

Dr Harry Barry spoke on Clare Byrne Live about SAD syndrome last November, “[It’s] a genetic thing. Almost every November, bang. Down goes our mood… Then we literally crawl our way through ‘til the end of February when the light starts to come back again.”

Mental health is at the forefront of worries among society in the current level five restrictions. Due to this, the Dáil outlined that those who do suffer from mental health challenges can nominate one other household as a social support. 

Going forward, our government is intending to release enhanced measures focusing on mental health according to RTÉ.

The College View surveyed 98 people about their thoughts on how Covid-19 may affect those who suffer from SAD syndrome. Also asking if they have heard of the condition before.

96 per cent of the group stated that they feel Covid-19 would greatly impact those who suffer from the condition. 

A representative from GroupTherapyLA, Neda Sanai stated that: “I believe lockdown could definitely affect symptoms of SAD.” She added that, “Anyone who is experiencing SAD, or symptoms, from quarantine, should use the tools and resources that are available, like therapy, to help.”

Why do people develop symptoms of SAD?

A common reason that people are affected by this disorder is the lack of sunlight they receive during the autumn and winter months. Jessie Byrne, the head of the Student Health Centre in DCU told us that in some cases those who suffer from SAD syndrome could see a drop in their mood until early Springtime.

Priory’s Roehampton Hospital’s consultant psychiatrist, Dr Natasha Bijlani said: “Working from home, and other recent Covid restrictions, might increase the depressive aspects of SAD because staying indoors limits exposure to natural light” 

People answered our questions about their knowledge and thoughts about the condition. Out of the surveyed group 62 per cent of them had heard of SAD syndrome before and stated that they know of someone who may suffer from the disorder.

Joe Murphy* is a relative of someone who suffers from SAD syndrome told us that the change from Summer into the Autumn-Winter months affects their relative and “really brings [their] mood down.” They added, “[They] love working on our garden and going for walks… but in the Wintertime, when gets really dark [their] mood changes.”

They acknowledged a noticeable change within the Winter months, with aggravated levels of stress and mood swings occurring frequently, “Don’t get me wrong… [They’re] a very happy and hilarious person, but the change in the seasons really bring out a different side of [them].”

Treating SAD at home and professionally

A common prescription for those who suffer from SAD syndrome is “Light Therapy.” Light therapy is a controlled application of light, using ‘Light Therapy Lamps’ that are supposed to replicate the sunlight that is missing during the day.

Light therapy is listed among, counselling, medication, and GP visits by the HSE and mind.org.uk as one of the main treatments of SAD syndrome. Dr Barry displayed the ‘Dawn simulator’ on Clare Byrne Live.What happens in a dawn simulator… is almost mimicking daylight… it increases the amount of light so that eventually it’s like the sun has come up.

Dr Barry admitted to using one of these simulators for several years, and he feels that it greatly improves his mood in the wintertime. “You have a boost of light… that boost stops melatonin production in the morning, which usually makes us feel ‘groggy’.” 

Dr Barry later explained SAD syndrome lamps work. “The boost of light coming into your brain causes a boost of serotonin.” Dr Barry states that if you use the lamps as little as once a day, it can be transformative for people.

You can find ‘Light Therapy Lamps’ on Amazon and in Boots for less than €50. Although the effectiveness of light therapy can vary from person-to-person.

Physical health informs mental health. How you use your body effects how your mind feels. By using these resources, it helps change how your brain is responding to stress and depression,” Neda Sanai said.

Sanai also suggested that, “Spending time sitting in silence, stillness, or solitude (when possible) can also be a great way to reset our minds and help us to feel calm.” Which can be a helpful and easy alternative to light therapy. 

There are a few ways you can try and help lift your bad moods and symptoms from home including getting out for a walk, taking some time to socialise with others, and even just taking the time to yourself to practice mindfulness.

For some people with mild symptoms, these can be alleviated by working in more brightly-lit areas, and keeping blinds wide open during the day,” Dr Bijlani advises.

If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, or other mental health issues please try and reach out to someone who you can confide in. If symptoms persist and you can’t find a way to help yourself it is important to talk to a loved one or a professional who can guide you through this difficult time – remember you are never truly alone.

  • The National LGBT Helpline: 1890 929 539 or visit lgbt.ie
  • Jigsaw: 1800 544 729
  • Samaritans: 116 123
  • Bodywhys: 01 210 7906 or alex@bodywhys.ie
  • 24/7 Free Text Support Text ‘Hello’ to 50808
  • Aware: 1800 80 48 48

*Names were changed for the sake of confidentiality

Muiris O’Cearbhaill

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