1 May, 2024

Winter Wellness - Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression or low mood that’s related to the change in season. In the last of our winter wellness series, we will cover what SAD is, the causes, symptoms and treatment options. In the colder winter months, New Zealand gets very little sunlight and daylight hours and it’s normal to feel and behave differently. For example, most people find they sleep more, eat more or crave different foods. People may also feel less energetic and want to spend more time at home. This is all part of the natural cycle of the seasons. However, for some people these symptoms can be worse and difficult to manage. It can affect their ability to work, manage their home life and more. It can be similar to depression, affecting how you feel for weeks or months. The main difference is that SAD symptoms start to appear at the end of autumn and persist until the start of spring.

What causes seasonal affective disorder?

The shorter days and less sunlight in New Zealand affect how we feel. This is because:

  • With less sunlight, our brain produces more melatonin. This is the hormone that makes us feel sleepy. For people with SAD, their brain is producing higher levels of melatonin making them feel less energetic.
  • A lack of sunlight also leads to lower serotonin levels. This is the hormone that affects mood, appetite and sleep. People with SAD struggle as their brains are producing less serotonin.
  • Lower light levels impact our circadian rhythm. This is the body’s internal clock that wakes us up and helps us sleep. With less sunlight, the body’s rhythm is disrupted which can also lead to SAD.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of SAD are similar to depression and often show up at the end of autumn or early winter. Some of the symptoms include:

  • A persistent low or sad mood which can feel like emptiness and no feelings.
  • Loss of interest/ pleasure: You might find you don’t enjoy the things you usually would, like visiting friends, playing sport etc.
  • Irritable mood: You might feel grumpy or annoyed alongside feeling empty/ sad.
  • Change in sleeping habits: You may have difficulty sleeping which can include disturbed sleep, difficulty getting back to sleep or waking up early/ oversleeping. You will probably wake feeling unfreshed.
  • Change in appetite: You might not feel like eating, and as a result may lose weight. Or you may have increase appetitie and often without pleasure in eating.
  • Decreased energy or tiredness: small tasks can feel difficult to finish.
  • Reduced contact with others: You may withdraw from friends and family, and have less contact with them.
  • Thoughts of hopelessness and death: You may feel there’s no hope in life, wish you were dead or have thoughts of suicide.
  • Difficulty thinking clearly: You may have difficulty concentrating or even making simple decisions.

How does a doctor diagnose SAD?

Your doctor will understand your symptoms and make an assessment based on that. For a diagnosis of SAD, there is usually a pattern of symptoms developing in autumn/ winter and improving during spring/ summer. Some SAD symptoms are similar to other conditions, so your doctor may want to rule these out by getting a full understanding of your experience.

What are the treatment options?

There are a few different options to treat SAD. Some of these are outlined below:

  • Light therapy: Increased exposure to sunlight can improve the symptoms of SAD. For this reason, your doctor may suggest outside time, or light therapy. There are special lamps/ light boxes that have 10 times the intensity of home lighting which have been shown to be effective.
  • Talking therapy or counselling: Supportive counselling can help with talking through your feelings and stressors. At The Fono, we have a team of dedicated Mind Health Navigators who provide counselling and talk therapy. To find out more and book an appointment, visit our website
  • Medications: Your doctor may suggest antidepressants. These help with improving mood.

Is there anything I can do to improve my symptoms of SAD?

Here’s a few tips to help improve your symptoms of SAD:

  • Make your environment sunnier and brighter by opening curtains and trimming tree branches that block sunlight into your home.
  • Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.
  • Spend time outside as often as you can, even on overcast days.
  • Find ways to maintain connections with people that don’t depend on the weather. For example, talking online or inviting friends to your home.
  • If possible, plan a holiday during winter- either to get a break from the cold or just to have something pleasant to look forward to.
  • Find someone at work, school or in your personal life who understand your experience and can support you if you’re having a difficult time.
  • Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to rest in ways that feel right for you.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, reach out for help  

  • Lifeline 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
  • Free counselling 1737
  • Suicide Crisis helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Healthline 0800 611 116