Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Explains seasonal affective disorder, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

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How can I help myself cope with SAD?

Many people with SAD develop self-help strategies that enable them to manage the condition themselves, either on their own or with other treatment. You may find these suggestions helpful:

Make the most of natural light

We know that being outdoors throughout the winter doesn’t cure SAD because people who work outside also experience SAD symptoms. However, it is still worth taking the opportunity to be exposed to natural light when possible.

Small changes – like going outdoors around midday or on bright days, wearing sunglasses a bit less (if it is safe to do so) and having pale colours within the home to reflect light – can all be useful.

SAD is like a cold blanket that keeps depression and anxiety wrapped close to me. When I feel I can, I go outside and face the sun, close my eyes and focus on the light and warmth.

Avoid stress

Many people find that they are more likely to experience stress in winter. If you find this time of year difficult, try to plan ahead to reduce your number of stressful or difficult activities during this time. Plan the more stressful events for summer where possible, particularly major ones such as changing jobs or moving home.

Take advantage of the times when you feel well in summer to prepare for the winter – for example, by buying Christmas presents or stocking up your kitchen cupboards.

If you can, try to make more spare time to rest, relax or do pleasant activities in the winter. Perhaps pamper yourself physically with a massage, or learn a relaxation technique to help you unwind. Our section on How to manage stress has further suggestions.

You may want to discuss your symptoms with your employer to try to minimise the pressures on you in the winter months. This is a very personal decision and not all people experiencing mental health problems choose to disclose them at work. Equally, your employer has responsibilities to assist you, including making 'reasonable adjustments' where appropriate.

Build a support network

Think about joining a support group. Many support groups for depression will have members who experience SAD or who feel worse at certain times of the year. Sharing your experience with others who know what it’s like can be very therapeutic. Your GP or local Mind should be able to advise you about groups that may be suitable for you in your area.

Knowing that you are not alone and that help is available can make SAD easier to cope with. Get as much support as possible from your family and friends. Tell them about the condition, so they know what to expect and how to help. If your GP doesn’t know about SAD, you can get more information from the organisations listed in Useful contacts.

Exercise and eat well

Try to keep physically active during the winter. While you may not feel like it at the time, physical activity can be very effective in lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly strenuous – doing housework, gardening or going for a gentle walk, if you are able to, can all help. Doing something physical outside in a green space, such as the park or the countryside, has been shown to be especially helpful.

A healthy diet is also important, and you should try to balance the common SAD craving for carbohydrates, such as pasta and potatoes, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Some people find that taking extra vitamin B12 or a Vitamin D supplement is also helpful.

Visit somewhere with more light

If you can afford it, a holiday to a sunnier climate is likely to reduce symptoms.

However, you may find that on returning to the UK your SAD will temporarily become much worse. It seems that the contrast in light levels can sometimes do more harm than good, so if you have any doubts check with your doctor or the SAD Association before going away.

Consider using a light box

Using a light box – a specialist device containing very bright Fluorescent tubes – has been found to be an effective treatment for SAD because it increases your exposure to light during the winter months. Light boxes are usually at least 10 times the intensity of household lights. They are available in different strengths and sizes – for SAD, a strength of at least 2,500 lux is recommended but many people find 10,000 lux to be most effective.

People benefit from using a light box in different ways. Many people find that it is useful to use one every day but it is best to experiment to find a routine that works for you. You can use your light box at any time of day, although it’s best not to use it in the hour or so before you go to bed as the effect of the light may make it hard to sleep.

Occasionally people report side effects from using a light box, such as headaches, irritability or, in very rare cases, nausea. Changing your position may help but if problems persist, you should stop using it.

If you have existing eye problems, you should check with your optician that a light box is safe for you to use. If you use a light box regularly, you should tell your optician and make sure that you have an annual eye check-up.

You cannot get light boxes on the NHS, so it’s best to try one out before buying – manufacturers and suppliers may be able to offer you a free trial, or you could hire one for a short period first. Organisations like the SAD Association, and the SAD Shop may be able to help.

This information was published in June 2016. We will revise it in 2019.

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