SAD - Bright tips for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of low mood that is thought to result from a change in the season. It can make you feel down, lacking energy or motivation. There may be many reasons for low mood but a change in the season and corresponding changes in the light can trigger or worsen your negative feelings.
One of my hypnotherapy clients put it like this: ‘I remember coming back from holiday. The sudden change from long sunny days and being outside late into the evening to dark mornings and cold weather was so difficult to bear. I didn’t want to do anything except stay inside and keep warm and sleep.’
Living in northern climates, we have a marked contrast between the summer months of longer light hours - which tend to lead to a more active lifestyle and healthier eating - and the darker winter months with their low levels of light and colder temperatures.
This can lead to people feeling less positive during the winter months. But it makes sense to find ways to improve our mood during this time, so we can feel more emotionally resilient and positive about the months ahead.
What causes SAD?
Scientific research has shown that SAD affects more women than men, and is possibly caused by seasonal changes in hormone levels. Serotonin is known as the ‘feel good hormone’ and tends to increase our levels of well-being. It is thought that the reduced levels of light that we experience during these times have an adverse effect on serotonin production.
Melatonin is another brain chemical that is affected by a change in light levels. It has a role in regulating both sleep and mood, so these can easily be affected by the change in season. The changes in daylight affect our biological clock or circadian rhythms and can lead to a period of confusion in feelings of wakefulness, sleepiness and appetite.
Some people have said that their moods are affected so they feel more anxious and less confident. They may experience an increase in depressive or negative feelings and less interest in activities. People may either find difficulty in sleeping or a tendency to oversleep. The changes in mood can lead to you being less active and can also lead to dietary changes such as a craving for more carbohydrate based or sugar-rich foods. In turn, these can lead to fluctuating weight and feelings of heaviness or lethargy.
In the case of SAD, these symptoms will show a marked seasonal nature. They will appear and worsen during the autumn/fall and winter months, and will improve or disappear during times of greater daylight during the spring and summer.
Since some of the symptoms may be similar to those of depression, it is important to get a medical opinion and to rule out a more serious depressive illness.
What about light therapy?
SAD has traditionally been treated using light therapy. Daylight bulbs or light boxes are available which mimic the effect of natural daylight.
Bright Light Therapy (BLT) is a method of treatment that is used for SAD and for other depressive conditions and sleep disorders. A 10,000-lux light box is recommended and the therapy involves sitting in front of it for at least 30 minutes every morning. Lower intensity light boxes would require longer use of up to two hours.
Similarly, dawn simulators or ‘wake up lights’ can be used to replace an alarm clock and offer a gentler wake up experience. The theory is that these allow the body clock to synchronise more effectively and to optimise hormone levels.
Self-help for SAD
One of the effects of SAD can be lethargy, so it feels like much more effort to do anything or to get involved in activities. This can make it more difficult to put in place some of the self-help measures that can help to improve your mood and guard against a negative spiral of thoughts. However, if you can formulate a plan of self-help, here are some things to aim towards.
Get some daily exercise, preferably outdoors. While you may feel you don’t have time for exercise, it is worth looking at your routine so you can somehow build this in. Ideally outdoor walking will not only give you the benefit of using your body and building your muscles, but will give you exposure to whatever daylight there is, so you can make full use of it.
The medical profession has recommended Vitamin D supplements during the winter months. Winter levels of sunlight are not sufficient for the body to manufacture it. People with darker skin have an increased need for Vitamin D, since their higher levels of melanin prevent its absorption from sunlight. Vitamin D levels affect mood and a low level can contribute towards depression.
Try to follow a healthy diet with ample levels of fruits and vegetables. The Mediterranean diet can have health and mood benefits throughout the year and not just in summer.
To control your mood and to build resiliency in thinking it would be helpful to start a programme of meditation or mindfulness. This can help to make you more objective in your thinking, perhaps becoming more aware of how you are reacting to what you are experiencing.
Improve SAD with self-hypnosis
Self-hypnosis is another possible route toward helping yourself. Whereas meditation or mindfulness can help your thinking to become more resilient, self-hypnosis can help you to make changes in your life by harnessing your thoughts to promote action.
To use self-hypnosis, you would flesh out a goal you are working towards. For example, you might start with the goal of taking daily exercise. You would visualise exactly what you are going to do, making sure it is something that is achievable for you. Then work out exactly how and when it will fit into your life. This includes anticipating potential setbacks, or things that might get in the way, and how you will get around them.
The next step is to get yourself into a relaxed state and visualise the steps you’ll be going through to achieve your goal. Imagine yourself doing it, using as many senses as possible – what you’ll be seeing, hearing and feeling. Most importantly, visualise how good you will feel once you’ve done it.
By repeating your visualisation, you may find that you can refine it by adding further details. What you are doing is increasing the probability that you will actually carry out what you are imagining.
This is a brief description, but if you’d like more information, please look at my profile and website. Sometimes the best way to start with self-hypnosis is to first experience hypnotherapy with a therapist so you’re familiar with the process and desired state.
Strategies to get you through the winter months
It’s important to remind ourselves it's only a finite length of time, until we can enjoy the spring. As well as keeping physically fit and healthy and as positive as we can, let’s think about some of the advantages of ‘the dark months’. Winter landscapes may be more challenging, but can still be beautiful and feel exhilarating, once you venture out.
You might use this as a time for ‘inner work’. Perhaps if you find yourself spending less time around other people you can think of a natural advantage that this entails. Such as more time available to learn about meditation or mindfulness, or for study or preparing for a new phase.
Hypnotherapy for SAD
Hypnotherapy for SAD would examine what you’re experiencing and devise a plan to overcome any negatives and build positives into your life. The result we’d be looking for might be to increase feelings of hope, pleasure and anticipation while taking the opportunity to find enjoyment in the current season.