By Jacqueline Murphy
Given the state of Irish weather during 95% of the year, it’s not hard to believe that the constant chill looming in the air and the almost non-existent sunlight levels are having a negative impact on our daily mood and overall attitude towards life. But what if I told you there was more to it than simply suffering from a case of the winter blues? SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a branch of depression seldom spoken about and quite often, its very existence is questioned. Seasonal Affective Disorder is very much a real psychological illness, affecting 1 in 15 Irish people during the period from September to April each year, primarily due to the lack of sunlight we absorb on a day to day basis.
SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year so if you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the autumn and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody, unmotivated and lacking the enthusiasm to carry out tasks you would usually enjoy doing.
Of course, there’s a big difference between feeling pissed off about three days of consecutive rain and your mental health being chronically affected by the weather, but that line is often difficult to distinguish.
You may feel silly, or as if you’re overreacting about a part of life that can’t be changed, but you shouldn’t brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues” if it’s beginning to take a toll on your relationships, social life and mental state.
According to Mental Health Ireland, the symptoms of SAD may develop at any age, but it most commonly starts between 18 and 30. Common symptoms include sleep problems (usually oversleeping and difficulty staying awake, but in some cases disturbed sleep and early morning waking), lethargy (lacking in energy and unable to carry out normal routine due to fatigue, heaviness in the arms and legs, overeating/craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods), apathy (loss of motivation and ability to concentrate), social problems (irritability and withdrawal from social situations, not wanting to see friends) and depression (feeling sad, low, sometimes hopeless and despairing). A diagnosis is usually made after you’ve experienced two or more consecutive winters of these symptoms.
As the bad weather predominantly experienced in Ireland is impossible to avoid or adjust to, you may feel like SAD is something you just have to struggle on with, but that’s certainly not the case. As more and more awareness is made about its status as a mental health disorder, the treatment options are becoming more available and easier to discuss. Talk to your GP about prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs and diet supplements (including vitamin D), as well as any herbs you may take which will improve your moods and will help lessen the severity of many of the symptoms highlighted above. If you and your GP feel your case of SAD is particularly debilitating, you may want to consider light therapy. There are several devices available—from battery-powered visors, portable light boxes and special light bulbs, to dawn simulators (lamps that switch on before dawn and gradually light your room, like the sun rising), all of which have proved hugely successful for many SAD sufferers worldwide.
And while the amounts of sunlight we’re exposed to are minimal, we can take simple steps to maximize and utilize it effectively. Simply making your house brighter – trimming the bushes around your windows and keeping your blinds and curtains open during the day – can have a big impact on your day to day mood. Getting up early to take advantage of as much daylight as possible is advisable, as is sitting near a window whilst studying/working. Maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle will also make you less prone to encountering SAD, or any other mental health disorder for that matter. Regular exercise, getting enough sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, limit caffeine/alcohol and reducing stress where at all possible will no doubt have a super positive impact on your health, both physically and mentally.
Lastly, monitor your moods on a weekly basis. Watch for early signs that SAD is getting worse, if you suffer from severe winter depression, consult your GP immediately. They can help determine if your symptoms are related to SAD or may have another cause, in which case additional treatments available include psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, stress management techniques and specific prescribed medication may be recommended. The stigma surrounding mental health, unfortunately, is still present in Irish society, but don’t let that leave you suffering in silence. SAD is a mental health disorder and with the right care, it can be managed just like any physical illness would be.
Samaritans Ireland – 116 123
Pieta House Cork – 021 4341400