Seasonal Affective Disorder: Expert Advice on How to Avoid Feeling SAD This Winter

It is getting colder, the nights are drawing in, and now the clocks have gone back.

That officially signals the end of British Summer Time (BST) but for rising numbers of Brits, the Winter Blues well and truly kicked in weeks ago.

According to official statistics a staggering two million people are now affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) each year.

The NHS say one in 15 people suffer with it between October and April.

Men are twice as likely than women to develop symptoms. A report by health consultants, the York Company found those living in Scotland, north wales and London are the most likely to be affected this Winter.

And with the country in the grips of a cost-of-living crisis, many experts fear cases are set to sky-rocket to record levels this year.

Counsellor and author Lynn Crilly, who specialises in treating SAD, says: “More and more people are suffering with SAD – and now is the time to be on red alert. The first two weeks of October is when it kicks in for most people, so it’s vital to take steps right away to protect yourself.”
She added: “We really need to start taking this condition a lot more seriously because, if untreated, it can end up ruining lives – and affecting sufferers long after the sun starts shining again.”


Here Lynn outlines the steps you can take now to ensure you don’t end up SAD this Winter. 

How long does SAD last?

SAD can last for up to five months of the year. Typically, symptoms will develop in October, and worsen around the end of daylight saving time  at the end of October.

Suffers often report experiencing a more drastic decline in November. Many find the symptoms relent in Christmas, when they have more time off and are surrounded by friends and family.

But they kick back in with a vengeance in January and February – which experts say tend to be the months those with depression struggle with most.

Lynn says: “Each case of SAD is different but in the most extreme instances it can last for almost half of the year. This makes it very hard for the sufferer to function during the Winter and Autumn months, until they find an effective treatment.

“It is not clear exactly what causes SAD although it is thought to be an interplay between the effect of light on the body’s own natural ‘circadian’ rhythms or internal body clock that can be challenged by the huge swing in seasons that we experience. Those with SAD have been found to have lower levels of the mood regulating chemical serotonin, and higher levels of melatonin that helps us sleep. SAD doesn’t just impact the sufferer. It can have a massive knock on effect on friends and family too. If untreated it can put a massive strain on a relationship.”


What are the Symptoms of SAD?

SAD presents in many different ways. Those affected will find they lose interest in activities they once enjoyed and be less active than normal. There can be a loss of libido. Sufferers will feel lethargic and lacking in energy and get more sleepy during the day. They may sleep in for longer than normal in the morning and find it harder to get up. Someone with SAD will also find it difficult to concentrate and have an increased appetite. Many have a particular craving for foods containing lots of carbohydrates and end up gaining weight as a result which can, in turn, trigger depression as well.

Lynn says: “I am treating more and more people for SAD. Symptoms can present in people of all ages including children, and they will vary quite dramatically in severity.

“What’s important to remember is that all of us are affected by the seasons in some way or other. Who would not say that they feel more cheerful when the sun is shining or that they crave their duvet and comfort food during the darker winter months? But those with SAD end up feeling these seasonal changes much more acutely. The shorter, darker days  do not simply alter their mood, they transform it and some patients say it is like living with a cloud above their head for a large chunk of the year. It’s vital to recognise the signs and then take action to make changes in your life to deal with the condition more effectively.”


How can SAD be treated?

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) say SAD should be treated in the same way as other types of depression.

This includes using talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or medicine, including antidepressants.

Woman sitting near a white light lamp for light therapy.

Those looking to avoid going down the route of prescribed medication often overcome the condition by using light boxes. Also known as phototherapy boxes, these give off light that mimics sunshine and can help in the management of SAD. The light from the therapy boxes is significantly brighter than that of regular light bulbs, and is provided in different wavelengths. Typically, you’ll sit in front of the light box for about 20 to 30 minutes a day. This is believed to result in a chemical change in your brain that boosts your mood and alleviates symptoms of SAD. Increasing your levels of exercise and taking vitamin D can help too.  And six foods – dark chocolate, fatty fish, bananas, dark meats, avocados and nuts – are said to help combat the symptoms.

Lynn says: “There are ways to beat the Winter Blues. Going outside during the brightest part of the day, whether it be for exercise or just for a cup of tea and to read a good book can be effective, as can using a special lightbox. None of these will cure SAD but they may have some positive effect. Seeking help through the GP is essential too. Your GP may be able to recommend a support group or other specialist help, as well as being able to prescribe medication or therapy where and if this is necessary.”


Five other Tips from Our Expert to Stop Yourself Feeling SAD

MODERATE THE BOOZE: Many people go sober for October and report feeling the benefit. Could you extend this into November? A two-month detox could be the perfect health springboard to getting your body ready to combat the Winter Blues.


PUT DOWN THE DEVICES: The darker nights and colder temperatures often lead to us hibernating indoors – and turning more to devices like smartphones and tablets. Don’t fall into the trap of becoming addicted to your phone. Keep them out of your bedroom at night and focus on getting plenty of rest – this will help boost your defences for the battle against the Winter Blues.


MAKE A WINTER SCHEDULE: People who live with SAD often have trouble sleeping at night and getting up in the morning. Maintaining a regular schedule often improves sleep, which can help alleviate symptoms of seasonal depression. By making a schedule you can also try to lock in time outside when there is more light which will boost your mood. Consider keeping a journal too and writing down how you feel.

START THE DAY THE RIGHT WAY: Dawn simulation lights are similar to SAD lights but are designed to gradually wake you up each morning. They’re available as standalone bedside lamps, or as bulbs you can fit to your ceiling light with an accompanying timer you attach to your light switch. Many people who suffer from SAD describe them as really helping them.


EXERCISE, OUTSIDE: It can be tempting to think running outside is a Spring and Summer time activity only. But for many SAD sufferers, stopping being active outdoors is one of the reasons they fall into a downward spiral. Being physically also helps to reduce levels of stress and anxiety, which could also help you manage your SAD symptoms. It doesn’t have to be a marathon or a long bike ride. A 20 or 30 minute walk a couple of times a week could make all the difference in banishing the blues.