Seasonal affective disorder: How to beat the winter blues

Longer nights and shorter days can lead to the blues, but there are ways to combat the winter gloom.

Does your mood tend to drop along with winter’s temperatures?

It’s not uncommon to experience the blues as the days get shorter and cooler.

In some cases, the colder months can even trigger seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

While more common in the northern hemisphere, where autumn and winter are harsher, it’s not unheard of in Australia.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

SAD is a type of depression that emerges in autumn when days get shorter and there is less sunlight.

It peaks in winter and then improves in spring and summer, when days lengthen and we get more sunshine.

While the exact causes of SAD aren’t clear, scientists believe a lack of sunlight during winter and autumn affects a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and it doesn’t work as effectively.

Dr Stephen Carbone, a GP with an interest in mental health and former beyondblue policy and evaluation leader, says some people have a biological predisposition to SAD.

“It may be connected to the effect of sunlight on our brain,” he says. “The amount of light our brain receives can influence brain chemicals that regulate our mood.”

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Sufferers of seasonal affective disorder feel persistently down, lose interest in things that normally give them pleasure and may feel more irritable and lethargic.

“People feel sad and unhappy, day after day for two weeks or more,” says Dr Carbone.

“There’s a loss of pleasure in life and people can sleep too much, gain weight and crave carbohydrate foods.”

What to do if you have seasonal affective disorder

  • “When it’s cold, wet and dark there’s a tendency for people to go into hibernation. But it’s important to stay physically and socially active. So, stay in touch with others and keep doing things that relax you and that you enjoy,” says Dr Carbone.
  • Exercise to help manage stress – exercising outdoors will ensure you get as much natural sunlight as possible.
  • Talk to your GP about light therapy that involves a special lamp, a light box, that mimics sunlight. “A specialist will recommend you spend a certain amount of time with the lamp at a certain intensity on a regular basis,” says Dr Carbone.
  • Limit alcohol consumption.
  • If you feel you are struggling to deal with depression, talk to your GP or call beyondblue’s support service on 1300 224 636.

Written by Sarah Marinos