Coping with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

While for many the impact of winter weather is simply physical – the wearing of big jumpers; the need to de-ice the car in the morning – for some, it can result seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

So what is this condition – and what can sufferers do to cope with it and ensure it doesn’t impact on their working life?

SAD story

SAD is a type of seasonal depression. The symptoms, according to the NHS are:

  1. Persistent low mood
  2. Loss of pleasure or interest in day to day activities
  3. Irritability
  4. Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  5. Feeling lethargic and sleepy during the day
  6. Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  7. Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight.

Usually (but not always) SAD is associated with the winter. While many of us will experience some or all of the above symptoms when it’s cold outside for SAD sufferers their day to day life can be severely affected, so much so that they dread the change in the weather.

Mental health charity MIND describes SAD as, “like having your own portable black cloud”.

It adds that SAD can worsen existing, year-round depression.

The affects of SAD

It can be a serious condition says Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and, thanks to the UK’s northerly location, is not uncommon in this country. “SAD is akin to depression and its symptoms are similar. It can seriously impact on sufferers’ lives.”

Dr Zoubida Guernina is a psychologist and senior specialist in mental health. 

She says: “SAD is a crippling illness that affects many people in winter especially. Most sufferers have to stay in bed and find it hard to go out and do things in the fresh air. It affects their wellbeing, their work and relationships. Most often it is followed by severe depression and negativity about oneself, others and the world at large.”

The power of vitamin D

What causes SAD isn’t fully understood, says the NHS. But it seems to be linked to the lack of sunlight.

Sufferers tend to have higher levels of melatonin – the hormone which makes you sleepy – and lower levels of serotonin which affects mood.

In addition, the fewer hours of sunlight in winter affect the body’s circadian rhythms – making it harder to wake in the morning.

Managing the condition

Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE, professor of organisational psychology and health at the Manchester Business School says the key to handling the condition is seeing the light.

“If you work in an office, then your day is spent going from one box (home) to another box (the office) and then back to the first box. You’re not getting any natural light. You might even work in an office without windows.

“What you need to do is ensure that you get natural light every day – so make sure you at least go for a walk at lunchtime. And you must get physical exercise at least two or three times a week, whether that’s swimming or going to the gym or whatever you like.”

Blair advises

  • Sufferers should get at least 20 minutes’ natural light each day.
  • It’s best to take gentle, steady aerobic exercise, working your heart to about 60 to 80 percent of its maximum capacity.
  • You work out your heart’s maximum capacity by taking your age away from 220, so if you’re 20 then your maximum heart rate is 200 and you should work it to 60-80% of this is 120-160.
  • It means walking briskly, not running, so that you can still talk.

Employers seeing the light

It’s also important to stay active in the office, Professor Cooper says.

“Don’t send a colleague an email. Get up and go to see them. Sitting in front of a computer all day will not help. You need to move around, to talk to people. Exercise, daylight and social interaction will all help alleviate symptoms.”

Blair adds that it’s important to try to get up at the same time each day to manage your body clock.

“You might need more sleep but that’s natural in winter, just like animals’ instinct to hibernate. You are not being lazy if you feel you need more sleep: you are acting naturally.”

She also suggests that sufferers get special light alarm clocks, which wake you gently with gradually-increasing light which mimics sunrise. To get that extra sleep, go to bed earlier. And adds, it’s vital to turn off television, computer and phone screens half an hour before you go to bed as the light these devices produce inhibit melatonin production.

How employers can help

Dr Guernina adds that your employer should help too.

“It is important to get support from managers at work and to have forums and support groups in the workplace to encourage sufferers to talk about their condition. It is important for people not to feel they are struggling on their own. Most sufferers find it hard to do things on their own, including going out in the fresh air. They need genuine support to talk and to feel safe around those who understand their pain.”

Blair adds that employers can help by enforcing lunchtimes.

“Employers should not encourage workers to eat their lunches at their desks. Some people are afraid they will be looked at negatively if they leave their desks at lunchtime, but if they take a proper break outside, they will be more productive afterwards.” 

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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