What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

11 January 2019

According to the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 15 people in the UK are affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD) between the months of September and April1. Although it can affect people all over the world, it’s extremely rare for those who live within 30 degrees of the equator to suffer from SAD due to the long daylight hours1. The onset of SAD is estimated to happen between the ages of 18 and 30 and is four times more common in women than it is in men2.

Although some individuals suffering from SAD experience only mild symptoms, it can be debilitating for others, with their work and personal lives being heavily affected.

The specific cause of SAD is unknown. However, the Mayo Clinic suggests that the following factors may play a part3:

  • Circadian rhythm (your body clock). The decrease in sunlight during the winter may cause disruption to your body’s internal clock
  • Serotonin levels. Serotonin is a brain chemical that affects mood. Reduced sunlight during the winter months may cause a drop in serotonin.
  • Melatonin levels. Melatonin plays a role in sleep patterns and mood, and may be disrupted by a change of season.

Dr Wendy Li, Psychological Health Lead Clinician at AXA PPP healthcare, answers some frequently asked questions related to seasonal affective disorder.


What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. This can also be known as ‘winter depression’ because symptoms can be more apparent during the winter months. However, an individual can experience SAD symptoms during the summer and feel better during the winter.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Symptoms can include:

  • Persistent low mood
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in everyday activities
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feelings of despair
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Feeling low on energy and sleepy during the day or sleeping longer than normal
  • Craving carbohydrates which may lead to weight gain
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Is there a difference between SAD and the winter blues?

Both have been commonly used interchangeably, but can also be seen on the same spectrum. SAD is perceived as a more persistent pattern consisting of a number of symptoms over an extended period of time.


What should I do if I think I might have seasonal affective disorder?

If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, the best advice would be to consult your doctor who can help you to determine the next best steps depending on the severity of your symptoms.


Are there treatment options available for seasonal affective disorder?

The main treatments for SAD include:

  • Lifestyle measures – which include trying to get as much natural sunlight as possible
  • Regular exercise and managing stress levels
  • Light therapy – where a special lamp called a light box can be used to help simulate exposure to sunlight
  • Talking therapies – such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling
  • Antidepressant medications – such as selection serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

Although seasonal affective disorder can affect people in different ways, being aware of the most common symptoms can help to identify when you or one of your employees may be suffering from SAD. You should then consult with your GP to discuss the next best steps. To find out more about seasonal affective disorder, visit: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/ 


How we can help

When we lead such busy lives, it can be difficult to find the time to visit the GP during working hours. With our 24/7 online GP service, Doctor@Hand, you and your employees will benefit from a 20 minute appointment with a GP at a time and place that suits you, so you can fit your appointment around your schedule. When you take out a Business Health Select plan and choose our Extended Cover option, you and your employees will have access to five Doctor@Hand consultations a year.

For small business owners, every employee counts. When you or a member of your team is off work due to ill health, it can severely impact your business. Our private health insurance aims to get you and your team back to work as soon as possible. Click here for more information about our cover, including what is and isn’t covered.


Sources and references

1 Mental Health Foundation

2 Psychology Today

3 Mayo Clinic

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