Psych Bites | What is S.A.D?

10 Jan 2015

A picture of what is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Introducing a new monthly feature here on Tattooed Tealady, I thought it was about time I put my degree to good use and started sharing one of my biggest passions in life – Psychology.

When I was applying for University I spent days and weeks writing my personal statement, trying to put into words to my prospective Universities why they should accept me to study Psychology. Simply put? I wanted to learn more about ‘us’. About humans. The way we work, why we do certain things, why some people experience the things they do, why we make the decisions we do, why we are the way we are. My degree did exactly that – and it’s something I am eternally grateful for, something which I think has greatly benefited me as a person and helped me become a more well-rounded and accepting person overall.

Psychology is a hugely broad topic area and it is a subject I think would be incredibly beneficial if introduced to schools in the same ways that Religious Studies are – it may be a naive thought, but I think society on a whole would be a lot more accepting of others if we understood each other better.

An area which society still needs great improvement in is mental health awareness. Although the techniques, treatments and overall attitudes towards mental health in a professional capacity have massively progressed over the past few decades, there are still a lot of myths, misunderstandings and stigmas associated with mental health. This stigma can have a detrimental effect on both those who suffer with mental health, as well as those around them. Reducing mental health stigma is something I am hugely passionate about; so much so my entire dissertation concentrated on mental health stigma, establishing how this stigma arises and ways in which we, as a society, can work to reduce it.

Mental health is a topic area that a lot of people like to jump on. A lot of the time discussions about mental health – particularly online and via social networks such as Twitter and Facebook - can be a bit of a mixed bag. You’ll have those who have experienced mental health issues themselves, or know someone who has such as a family member or close friend. Often their voices will be supportive and encouraging, helping others who are struggling by letting them know they are not alone.

Then you have the not so pleasant conversations. The conversations where those voicing opinions often know very little (or nothing at all) about mental health, and their lack of understanding translates into bitter, hurtful and abusive remarks. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen people – myself included – ridiculed for being open and honest about their mental health, where people have been judged, attacked and even accused of exaggerating or ‘making it up’ to gain attention. This is something that needs to stop.

Each month I will be tackling an area of mental health that I think needs more understanding, in the hopes that those who react negatively to mental health can look upon it with a little bit more thought and care. Unfortunate as it is, I don’t think mental health stigma will ever be truly eradicated, and maybe these posts won’t be very interesting to many - but if a better understanding can be given to those who contribute towards those negative stigmas, then that’s enough for me.

Now that was a long introduction to a new series! If you’re still with me – thank you!

So, what is S.A.D and why do I want to talk about it?

I decided to tackle S.A.D for my first ‘Psych Bites’ post because it’s not only the time of year when S.A.D affects the most people, but it’s also something I have seen crop up more and more in discussions online recently, with a lot of brilliant insight, support and shared experiences – alongside some poorly misinterpreted information, too.

By definition, S.A.D is “The most common form of Seasonal Mood Disorder. Characterised by depression, lethargy and sleep disturbances, it typically occurs during the winter months and can often be treated by regular exposure to bright full-spectrum lights”.

Basically put, it’s a specific type of depression that can affect people more at certain times of the year. Usually, people will experience S.A.D at the same time each year and for most people this time is winter. 

The most common symptoms of S.A.D are as follows;

  • Low mood.
  • A loss of pleasure/interest in life.
  • Feelings of despair.
  • Feelings of worthlessness/low self-esteem/low self-worth/guilt.
  • Feeling stressed and/or anxious.
  • Being more indecisive.
  • A reduced libido.
  • Being less active.
  • Feeling more tired than usual, as well as sleeping more than usual.
  • A lack of energy.
  • Increased appetite.
  • Social withdrawal.
Of course, symptoms – both how many you experience as well as to what extent – will greatly differ from person to person. Experiencing some of the factors which can play a part in S.A.D doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have S.A.D; if you suspect you do, I would always recommend seeking advice from your GP and medical professionals who can properly determine whether you have S.A.D. Self-diagnosis is not a positive way to approach anything, especially mental health – so if you think you might be suffering with S.A.D, please speak to your GP. I am not a GP, and it is important to remember that my sharing more information on S.A.D (or any topic I cover in Psych Bites in the future), does not classify as a diagnosis.

So what causes S.A.D? Research has suggested that S.A.D is associated with changes in melatonin levels in the brain. What is melatonin? “Melatonin is an indoleamine (a group of biogenic amines, including serotonin and tryptophan) produced by the pineal gland. It has a wide variety of effects including regulating seasonal physiological changes, playing a role in puberty as secretions inhibit the development of sexual maturation and modulating the sleep-wake cycle”. Melatonin itself is sensitive to light changes and dark cycles, released during dark periods, and this is why S.A.D can be more prominent in winter.

In simple terms; the lack of sunlight in colder months of autumn and winter can cause chemical changes in our brains which result in S.A.D. This lack of sunlight along with the changes in melatonin levels creates problems for our hard-working hypothalamus (a relatively small but incredibly complex structure at the base of our brains which controls mood, appetite and sleep).

Here’s some S.A.D facts for you;

  • S.A.D affects up to 3 times more women than it does men.
  • Symptoms of S.A.D are more likely to occur in those between the ages of 18 to 30.
  • S.A.D affects an estimated 2 million people in the UK, and more than 12 million people across Northern Europe.
  • S.A.D, like any mental health disorder, is not in any way, shape or form the cause or fault of the individual; but the result of chemical changes in the brain.
How can you treat S.A.D?

The most common way to affectively treat S.A.D is with light therapy. This is the way that I personally tackle my own S.A.D, with the aid of my Lumie Bodyclock STARTER 30 Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock with Sunrise and Sunset Features, £59.95,which has been an absolute godsend over the past couple of years that I have had it. My own experiences with S.A.D are not that severe, and I find that having the Lumie light up each morning and create the illusion of a bright morning instead of the dark, grey skies outside, can make all the difference in how my day goes from there. Other alternatives for light therapy include light boxes, desk lamps and specific light-bulbs which create a very bright light, mimicking sunlight. Other alternatives for treating S.A.D include talking therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), counselling and Psychotherapy. Medication is also an option, and usually anti-depressants are prescribed.

Treatment for S.A.D will differ for each individual, and what works for some may not work for others. It is always recommended to see your GP, who can properly diagnose and recommend the treatment best suited for you.

Useful websites & contact information:

*I would like to reiterate that I am not a medical professional, and should you be worried about your mental well-being, you should always seek guidance from your GP.