How to cope with seasonal affective disorder

By The Space Between Us
What is it and how do you know whether the change in seasons is affecting your mental health? Find out to cope.

What is seasonal affective disorder and how do you know whether the change in seasons is affecting your mental health? Let’s look at how we can cope with this type of depression.

Winter may not be your favourite season, but it could be affecting your mood more than you realise. Summer-loving South Africans bemoan the cold, frosty windscreens, and the shorter days, but for some, it goes deeper than a morning gripe over a cup of coffee. 

For some, seasonal affective disorder, or winter depression as it’s also known, is a cyclical reality that can be overwhelming and disturb the quality of everyday life.

So, what is seasonal affective disorder?
If you feel great throughout the year but find yourself feeling tired and depressed come winter, you may well be affected by this seasonal pattern of depressive episodes. For some people with bipolar disorder, this seasonal component may express itself as depression in winter, and mania or hypomania in summer. And for some people, the oncoming spring or early summer can trigger sadness instead.

Most commonly, however, seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder that normally kicks in during autumn and the early winter months and may become more severe as winter progresses, as the days continue to shorten, and our mood-boosting sunlight is in shorter supply. This link between sunlight and mood shifts is why seasonal affective disorder is believed to be caused by a shift in the body’s biological internal clock – or circadian rhythm.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?
While it’s normal to feel a bit down sometimes, if you’re feeling down for days on end, if you’re sleeping more than normal, and if you’re turning to food and alcohol for comfort, it’s definitely time to start listening to your body and reaching out for support.

Symptoms can also include:
  • Feeling sad, depressed, cranky, agitated, or hopeless.
  • Feeling worthless or guilty.
  • Wanting to be left alone.
  • Losing interest in things you normally love doing.
  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions.
  • Having less energy.
  • Feeling sluggish or fatigued.
  • Having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much.
  • Noticing changes in your appetite or your weight.
  • Having thoughts of death or suicide.
In the case of a summer-onset, also known as summer depression, symptoms may include:
  • Feeling agitation or anxiety.
  • Having trouble sleeping.
  • Having a poor appetite.
  • Experiencing weight loss. 
How to deal with seasonal affective disorder
Clinical psychologist Lwanele Khasu says treatment depends on the severity of the condition. It’s also dependent on whether you have bipolar disorder or other types of depression. A psychiatrist might prescribe medication if you’re feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope. Psychotherapy and light therapy, or a combination of both can also be effective. However, light therapy must be used with caution because it could trigger a manic episode in those with bipolar disorder.

There are also plenty of lifestyle changes you can make to help. Here are Khasu’s top suggestions for coping with seasonal affective disorder: 

Get moving
Exercise can be a helpful mood enhancer. This is evident in people with depression as well as with anxiety, and is known to both improve and stabilise moods while enhancing self-esteem and boosting physical wellbeing.

Get outside
Even if the air is a little fresh, or there’s still a little frost on the grass, spend some time outdoors to avoid the feeling of being trapped during those cold and dark winter months.

Get some sunshine
Soak in natural light; open your blinds and curtains to let light in, arrange your work space to be near a window, go outdoors, take a walk, and enjoy Africa’s radiant sun (responsibly, of course).

Get connected
Spend some time with your loved ones, even if it has to be on a video call. Being surrounded by meaningful relationships can be fulfilling and fortifying.

Get mindful
Reduce screen time and try mindfulness instead. Exercises like yoga, breath work, guided meditations, and positive affirmations that resonate with you can help you reframe your thoughts and your perspective.

Get a journal
Confessing your struggles and expressing your emotions into a journal every day can help you understand your thoughts and make the world around you seem a little lighter, a little clearer.

Get a routine
Find a balance and create a rhythm in your daily patterns of living. Draw up a schedule and stick to it as much as possible. It can help reduce feelings of being overwhelmed.

Get good food
Eat as well as you can. When moods are low, we may be tempted to either skip meals or indulge in some emotional eating, but our entire being benefits when we eat more healthy and wholesome foods.

Get resilient
Seasonal affective disorder is linked to the change in seasons and winter’s dwindling sunlight … and resilience, in part, is the ability to adapt to changes, and to be able to work through them. Since you’re able to anticipate the possible return of seasonal affective disorder as autumn swings around, you can start making plans on how you’ll spend your days as they start getting shorter. You can also sign up for webinars on building resilience – a sense of control over your own environment can feel quite empowering.

For those of us affected, Khasu also encourages us to try and understand its inception. “There may be a root cause for its recurrence,” she says. The anniversaries of traumatic events, for example, can be very intense, manifesting in anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, and many other symptoms.

But no matter what your journey, Khasu says, “Keep celebrating the little steps. Whenever you’re improving, keep reflecting on it, acknowledging it. It can give you a sense of confidence in jumping other milestones.”