Seasonal affective disorder, low mood and depression associated with autumn and winter, can make the months ahead challenging, so learn how to spot the early signs

Summer came to a sudden end this year, bringing with it grey clouds, cool spells, and plenty of rain. Of course, after the heat we experienced in July and August, a drop in temperature is perhaps welcomed, but as we set our sights on the challenges this particular winter season is due to bring, it’s fair to say that the promise of cosy winter days in, curled up with hot drinks, isn’t quite cutting it.

Adding onto that, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects approximately two million people in the UK and 12 million people across Europe, the NHS reports. Sometimes called ‘winter blues’, SAD is categorised as a drop in mood and energy prompted by darker, winter weather. It runs across a wide spectrum. For some, it’s mild, for others it can lead to depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and low self-esteem.

There are a number of treatment avenues available, from so-called ‘SAD lamps’ to medication. And if you think you’re experiencing it, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP or a mental health professional.

As we’re just tipping over into the autumn and winter months, learn the early signs of SAD, so that you can take action before it settles in.

1. You can trace your feelings

If you’ve started to feel low, can you trace when those feelings began, or when they intensified? Was it with the change of the seasons?

You might also want to think back over the years. In general, are there any patterns that you can pick out? Do you often struggle with a certain time of year, and does that time come with additional challenges (for example, a stressful period at work, difficult dates following bereavement, etc.), or is the common theme the weather?

It might be worth starting a record of your low mood, as you might find that it’s boosted on periodic sunny days, which might be a sign that you’re experiencing SAD.

2. Easy tasks start feeling harder

It feels as though, all of a sudden, the things you used to be able to do with ease take a lot more effort, and you’re feeling the brunt of it. Perhaps it’s at work, where getting through to the end of the day feels like a massive chore, or around the home where the things that you used to quickly tick off your to-do list now sit there undone.

When we’re struggling with our mental health, performing to our full capacity is easier said than done, and it can take a lot more out of us to do the things that once came easily.

3. Your sleep is disrupted

A common side effect of SAD, our sleep patterns tell us a lot about our overall wellbeing. Have you noticed that your sleep hasn’t been quite the same since the weather changed? It could be that you’re waking up in the middle of the night, or that you struggle to fall asleep, and wake up still feeling tired.

You might also find yourself feeling very sleepy during the day, and maybe even taking naps when you wouldn’t normally do that. The key thing is to track changes in your own individual behaviour. So think about what’s normal for you, and then consider when and how these changes are happening.

4. Your irritability levels are higher

When we’re struggling with low mood, it can be easy to be ‘set off’ by small things that wouldn’t normally get on our nerves. In the summer months, your tolerance levels might have been higher, and so the busy hum-drum of everyday life managed to pass you by without affecting you too much. But, now, you’re finding that you’re irritated and distressed by things, and are starting to feel as though you can’t cope in the ways that you did before.

5. There are changes to your appetite

Changes to your appetite, either desiring to eat more or less food than normal, is often linked to changes in our mood. In particular, lower levels of the hormone serotonin (which, when it drops, can lead to depression) can make us crave foods containing carbohydrates. Why? It’s thought that this link exists because carb rich foods are good at boosting our mood and also our short-term energy stores.

All that said, if you are worried about a drastic change in your appetite, the best course of action is to speak to your GP about it.

SAD can make the winter months really challenging for the many people who experience it. So if you think you might be experiencing some early signs, speak to those around you, and reach out for help.

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