Sydney Hills Counselling Blog

Feeling The Winter Blues? What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and How to Overcome It

Kate (not her real name) came to see me recently when her sense of overwhelm became too difficult to bear alone. She felt as if she was drowning in a sea of to-do lists that were becoming longer and less manageable by the day. Only a few months ago, these lists didn’t seem to faze Kate; after a good and productive day at work, she would leave her workplace and enjoy the rest of the warm, sunny day. 

I asked Kate when she first noticed her symptoms of feeling tired, not sleeping well, feeling tearful and eating more than she usually did, and she said that she had noticed that they seemed to creep up on her just after Mother’s Day. I noted that mid-May was when the days began to get shorter, and the climate was becoming colder and I suggested to her that she may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, also referred to as SAD. 

As the days become darker and colder, some of us may find ourselves struggling with the Winter Blues also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Although some may find it flimsy, it feels very real to those individuals who suffer from it. Although the Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder is less common in Australia, given that we live in a temperate climate, it’s estimated that at least 1 in 300 people still suffers from it. This year, we are experiencing some of the coldest days in decades, so perhaps this could explain why more of us may be feeling affected by the short, dark, colder days. It’s widely accepted that reduced sunlight can cause a drop in our ‘feel-good’ hormone serotonin, which may trigger depression. 

So, what is The Winter Blues (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and what are its symptoms? 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depressive disorder that coincides with the change of seasons. It most notably occurs from late Autumn to Winter. It tends to impact females more frequently than males and can range in intensity from mild to more severe symptoms. 

The most common symptoms are:

  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Feelings of detachment and/or feeling emotionally numb
  • A change in appetite 
  • Craving foods high in carbohydrates
  • Feeling agitated
  • Drinking more alcohol/substance abuse
  • School or work problems
  • Weight gain or Weight loss
  • Feeling lethargic / having low energy
  • Feeling teary
  • Feeling hopeless and/or worthless
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviour

Those people who are affected by SAD often feel that it has impacted all areas of their lives, including their relationships, work, health, and well-being. When these symptoms manifest, people can often feel as if they are unable to work or function on a daily basis. 

Managing SAD:

The best way to manage the Winter Blues is to manage the symptoms. As with any mental health issue, symptoms will vary from person to person. Some individuals will respond well to certain types of interventions, whilst others may need another type of intervention or approach. The main thing is to strive for balance; if one method doesn’t work, then try another. 

Seek Balance: 

Mental and physical health often improve when life is back in balance. The three areas of our lives we need to pay attention to are our minds, our physical body, and our spirit (emotions). Try to include activities in your daily life that fit into these three categories.

Some Suggestions are: 

Eat foods that nourish your body. Are you including sufficient vegetables and fruits? (think a minimum of 2 servings of fruits and 5 servings of vegetables per day). Are you eating whole grains and staying away from highly processed foods? 

Are you regularly interacting with others in your life whose company you enjoy? 

Have you been moving your body regularly in ways that bring you calm and satisfaction? (Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong are ancient holistic practices that focus on holistic principles). 

Practise Mindfulness. Even as little as a few minutes of mindfulness practice each day can help to lift your mood and induce feelings of calm and well-being. I use this free app daily and highly recommend it. There is an option for in-app purchases, however, I only use the free version of the app and I recommend it to all of my clients.

Prioritise your daily tasks: 

Your ever-increasing to-do lists aren’t going to disappear, however, developing strategies for dealing with them will make them seem less onerous. Create a list with tasks ranging from the simplest tasks to the more complex ones. Set a goal of achieving at least 3 tasks each day from the list; a few more if you are able. 

At work, if you have more than a few projects going at one time and feel overwhelmed, divide each project into manageable segments that can be done in one sitting. At home, make life easier for a while. Make meals simpler, order from a healthy meal-prep service (there are many around these days), or perhaps opt for healthy pre-prepared meal options from the supermarket that are time-saving and easy to cook. These days, there is also a decent range of healthy convenience meals from the cold section of the supermarket. Another thing to consider is to simplify your housework, doing one or two tasks each day, rather than letting household tasks accumulate and the house become messy and chaotic. 

Talk about it. 

The Winter Blues or SAD is a disorder that will only worsen if symptoms are stifled and not spoken about. Speaking with trusted friends, and family, or joining an online community who are also experiencing it can be helpful, however speaking to a trained mental health professional is the most helpful approach. Talking about your thoughts and feelings may help lessen the burden and you may find that you will come up with some useful solutions to manage your symptoms specific to your situation.

Speak to your GP

A consultation with your GP may provide useful answers regarding your physical and mental state. Perhaps they will suggest doing a blood test to determine whether you have adequate levels of Vitamins D and B12, which may impact energy levels and mood. If SAD is negatively impacting your life and you’re not able to live your life as fully as you normally would, it may be helpful to discuss medication with your GP.

The Winter Blues can disrupt our daily lives by significantly affecting our mental state.  If you are experiencing troubling symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, help is available. For further information, or to schedule a counselling session, contact us today on (02) 9159-6277 for a confidential chat, or you can email us at [email protected]

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