Counsellor and psychotherapist Lindsay George answers your questions on seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
I’m dreading the darker days. How do I manage symptoms of SAD when the UK has such a long winter? Are there things we can do generally to make it easier?
Many people dread the darker winter months, however, there are a number of things you can do to help yourself get through them and manage symptoms of SAD.
- Lifestyle measures: Aim to get as much natural sunlight as possible, exercise regularly and manage stress as best you can.
- Light therapy: Invest in a light box to simulate exposure to sunlight.
- Talking therapies: Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and/or counselling to talk about how you’re feeling with a professional.
- Speak to your GP: Your doctor may refer you for further treatment such as counselling and/or medication.
- Diet and nutrition: Consider speaking with a nutritionist to ensure you are getting the nutrients known to benefit mood and general wellness, such as omega-3 and 6.
- Supplements: Public Health England (PHE) recommend that people in the UK take a daily vitamin D supplement between October and March.
I find the winter months really difficult, but nobody seems to understand how bad it can be. How can I help other people realise I don't just have the 'winter blues'?
It’s frustrating when people around you don’t seem to understand how you are feeling. Knowing you have a support network, in which you feel comfortable talking to them, or they at least try to understand what you are feeling, is very important in ensuring you get the help you need.
While winter blues often involves lack of sleep, SAD will likely leave you feeling fatigued and lethargic, and getting out of bed and starting the day can be extremely difficult. All of these symptoms can vary in severity, and if untreated, can have a significant impact on your overall health and ability to carry out day-to-day activities.
The first step you need to make is speaking to someone. It might be a good idea to make an appointment with your GP and explain how you are feeling. They will want to know how long you have felt like this and whether there is a correlation to the weather, your lifestyle and personal circumstances, in order to identify whether you have SAD or depression, or if there is something else going on.
I’ve heard that counselling and CBT can help with SAD, and that light therapy can be effective. How does this work? What should I expect from counselling for SAD?
A combination of counselling, CBT and light therapy can really help manage the symptoms of SAD. The idea behind light therapy is to create a simulation of sunlight by sitting in front of a special light box for 20-30 minutes per day, so that the melanopsin receptors in the eyes can trigger the required serotonin release within the brain for natural sleep cycles and general feelings of wellbeing.
Counselling can help you in a number of ways. Finding the right counsellor is key, you need to feel connected to them in a way that you can open up feeling safe and without judgement. A good counsellor will help you feel supported at all times and more in control of your problems. They will help you develop a better sense of self-awareness and discuss and encourage how you develop better coping skills.
If you recognise that your mood and wellbeing falter during the winter months, you are not alone
As a counsellor in private practice, winter brings a steady stream of new clients who present with symptoms of depression and SAD, including low mood, anxiety and in some instances, suicidal feelings. It is hugely rewarding to be able to help a client feel better and more in control of their life, by suggesting some simple changes to their lifestyle.
So, if you’re one of the many people who recognise that your mood and wellbeing falter during the winter months, please do take comfort in knowing you are not alone. Help is available.
Lindsay’s Top Tips for Managing SAD
Be aware of your mood and energy levels
Are you feeling more tired and grumpy than usual? Recognise that you may be experiencing SAD for the first time. If you are struggling to get out of bed or sleeping for longer periods than usual, you may be one of the many people who could benefit from making some small adjustments to your lifestyle, such as making time in your day for a walk outside over your lunch break, instead of sitting at your desk.
Consider taking vitamin D supplements daily
It is believed that SAD affects over ¼ of the UK population. Taking vitamin D 10mcg once a day from October to May will provide you with the recommended daily requirement according to NICE guidelines.
Speak to your GP and/or consult a nutrition professional before making any significant changes to your diet.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to get away, then investing in some winter sunshine is another easy fix, as life can invariably take on a different complexion by escaping from the gloomy grey skies for a few days.
Talk to a friend or family member
If you’re still feeling low in mood and worried about how you’re coping day to day, please talk to someone sooner rather than later. All to often people put their problems aside in the hope that they will start to feel better in time.
Often this is because they don’t want to burden others or it may be that they don’t want to be seen as weak or not able to cope. Trust me, everyone has issues at some point, your friends and family will naturally want to help you with yours, after all it’s a human need to want to help others, it's what makes us feel good about ourselves.
Consider seeking professional help, such as counselling
Choosing the right person to talk to is the important bit and if you don’t have a friend or family member you feel you can confide in, speak to your GP and/or find a therapist that can help support you. You are not alone.
Lindsay George is an experienced counsellor, psychotherapist and registered general nurse. Working with young people, adults and couples, Lindsay focuses on early intervention, and making therapy accessible to all. Read more about Lindsay on Counselling Directory.
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