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Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

Colleen is a psychotherapist retired from private practice, specializing in human relationships.


The Sadness of S.A.D.

Although seasonal affective disorder is a fairly recent addition to the psycho-medical lexicon, it has been acknowledged in various ways throughout time. Various treatments are available, many of them holistic. A combination of common sense and home remedies can ease the doldrums of an otherwise dreary season

Throughout the ages, winter has been associated with darkness, cold, and bleak isolation. Indeed, at one time people in extremely cold climates actually hibernated as some animals do. Their survival was maintained by the excess body fat accumulated during warmer seasons.

When Shakespeare’s King Richard III speaks of the winter of his discontent, he refers to his ultimate depths of despondency. Yet, despite the fact that countless people worldwide suffer from despair during the winter months, this cyclical dysfunction has gained relatively recent recognition as a prevalent, treatable disorder.

The Symptoms

S.A.D’s symptoms include many of those encompassed in depression: lethargy, impaired concentration, diminished acuity in performing routine tasks, withdrawal from social interaction, increased appetite resulting in weight gain, and its consequent loss of self-esteem and well-being. The immune system becomes depleted, rendering the sufferer more susceptible to infections and other illnesses.

It generally appears between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Often beginning in young adulthood, the sooner it is diagnosed; the quicker a treatment plan can be implemented, forestalling recurrence in later life.

I cannot but remember, when the years grow old -- October -- November - How she disliked the cold!

— Edna St. Vincent Millay

Can Counseling Help?

Reportedly, it is more common in women than men, in a four-to-one ratio. This, however, may be due in part to a reticence on the part of men to admit to despair. While a growing number of men seek counselling for various types of emotional pain, it remains more difficult for men to concede being plagued by inner turmoil than it is for their female counterparts.

This residual machismo may be seen in that, while relieving stress via alcohol, men tend to pride themselves on not taking pills, perceiving the ingestion of tablets as an indication of weakness.

The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year; of wailing winds and naked woods, and meadows brown and serene

— William Cullen Bryant


What are the optimal treatments for S.A.D? The well-known methods are available: antidepressants and counseling. Once it has been diagnosed by a physician, it may prove vital to begin taking antidepressants more than a month before the onset of winter, as it often requires as long as six weeks for these medications to become effective.

In heaven above, and earth below, they best can serve true gladness, who meet most feelingly the calls of sadness

— William Wordsworth

The Empathic Ear

Counselling can be utilised in conjunction with antidepressants, or as an alternative treatment modality. Thus, it is sometimes advisable to contact a counselor before S.A.D has an opportunity to take hold, in order to make a tentative appointment, ideally forestalling the need for medication. In terms of counseling, it often proves fruitful to be aware that an empathic ear is available, should the need for such support arise and intensify.

Early Signs

These may begin in the form of prevalent unhappy thoughts and memories, exacerbated by increasing darkness and cold. If you feel you might be a sufferer, some additional recommendations include: Lay in a supply of books which you have been meaning to read, but have yet to get to.

View these books as mental/emotional firewood; the echoes of some of them may outlast the winter-might even become a part of your soul. Books are friends; invite them to sit at your fireside.

The Use of Light Boxes

While scientific research is still being conducted into this field, it is known that when the body’s absorption of light is decreased, sleep patterns can be disrupted, disturbed. Light boxes, also called dawn simulators, can provide that crucial light of which we are deprived during winter. It is known that, the further south one lives from the equator, the higher is the percentage of S.A.D.

Often, it is caused by the absence of light reaching the body through the retina. Thus, the replicated sunlight delivered through light boxes, operates in the same way as does the sun during the spring and summer months, aiding the metabolizing of Vitamin D.

Some sufferers enjoy setting a light box timer a quarter hour before their day begins, allowing them to awake to the sun. Others prefer to switch it on shortly after awakening, in order to glide into the day in a sunlit ambiance.

Into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.

— Longfellow

The Heliostat

A further method consists of the redirection of natural sunlight into your living area. This can be done by a device called a heliostat, comprised of a mirror usually placed outside the home that automatically moves according to the position of the sun and reflects the sun’s rays towards a selected area, such as a window or skylight.

Gathering Sunshine and Vitamin D

During the winter months there may be rare glimpses of sunshine. Don't delay; motivate yourself and take the opportunity to soak up those mood lifting rays.

In western Russia the Moskva River runs through the centre of Moscow and is frozen over throughout the winter months. In early spring when the sun shines, Muscovite's will gather beneath the upright banks of the river.

They will remove their shirts and blouses open their arms wide, and lay back against the river bank soaking up the rays of the sun and the light reflected from the ice beneath them. Although the air is freezing cold; the reflected heat of the sun from the riverbank creates a warm microcosm.

Additional Comforts

It may also prove useful to have a CD of bird songs at hand, along with floral fragrances reminiscent of spring and summer. An American study has shown an enzyme contained in rose petals reduces anxiety. Thus, a potpourri of dried rose petals and other appealing scents can be an added pleasure.

An opposite but pleasing idea is to embrace winter, with all the warmth the word can evoke. Why not, of an evening or at any leisure hour, wrap yourself in a comforting quilt, put a heating pad under your back and/or feet, place a log on your fire, or relax to a CD or DVD of a bright, crackling fire? Enjoy a cup of warmed cider, or hot cocoa?

About Chocolate and Oxytocin

Speaking of chocolate, an ever-enticing thought, brings us to winter’s hormonal effects. The hormone Oxytocin, its name derived from the Greek “quick birth”, has been called “the cuddle hormone” because it floods mothers’ systems during labour, just prior to their giving birth.

This hormone continues to be secreted during the nursing process, stimulated by the sucking motion of the infant’s mouth on the mother’s nipple.

Sweets grown common lose their dear delight

— Shakespeare

Oxytocin: Mood-Lifter

Chocolate is a major source of oxytocin. (Chile peppers contain it as well, but have far less universal appeal.) Experiments are being conducted into the value of oxytocin in tablet form, but to date, no reliable information has become available. Ideally, oxytocin will, in time become, like caffeine, a legal mood-lifter. In botanical lore, the herb lad’s love derived its name because, placed in a nosegay, it was thought to spark a lady’s libido.

Perhaps chocolate is our modern lad’s love, the chocolate-box the alluring bouquet. In any case, scientific research makes clear that chocolate, as a carrier of oxytocin, encourages us to feel happier and more responsive to those around us. This endorphin is also sparked by the affection of those we like and love.

Sadness flies on the wings of the morning and out of the heart of darkness comes the light.

— Jean Giraudoux

Hugs Are Free

For this reason, in addition to sipping hot cocoa in winter, let’s hug those we love, during winter and all year round - both parties will benefit. But what about winter weight gain? While hugs have no calories, chocolate has loads. Ingestion of chocolate, combined with the lack of exercise often a bi-product of winter, makes it hard to wake from winter’s cocoon without a dispiriting layer of flesh.

To prevent or minimise this distress, limit your mugs of hot chocolate to a treat to celebrate a festivity, or a comfort during the depths of cold doldrums. Indoor exercise can provide a sustaining means of weight maintenance during winter.

Have you Suffered with S.A.D?

Exercise is Uplifting

Creating and then adhering to a daily exercise program will bring you a sense of achievement while jump-starting your brain’s feel-good hormones. A treadmill and indoor bicycle are worthwhile; they will prove sound allies.

At a lesser cost, a stepper and wrist and ankle weights are fruitful assistants. These weights are invaluable in that you can benefit by wearing them while engaged in everyday tasks.

Amazingly soon, (I speak from experience) you may forget you are wearing them, but during every second you do so, with even the slightest movement of arm, leg, finger or toe, you will shed calories.

There is, as yet, no definitive solution for S.A.D. It is hoped that, for many, utilising the above suggestions, those days each year, lasting from the end of autumn till the beginning of spring, can become, if not the season of choice, a time of contentment.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2014 Colleen Swan


Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on June 25, 2015:

Hi Robert, Thank you for your encouraging comment. I never knew SAD could impact on someone to the point of choosing to move to a warmer climate. I always admire people who take a pro-active approach towards dealing with difficult issues.

Robert Morgan on June 25, 2015:

Very well written. S.A.D. is very under-diagnosed, especially in the northern hemisphere. Escaping its symptoms was one ofthe reasons I moved to Florida.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on April 01, 2014:

Thank you Denise, I am happy you enjoyed the hub. The sun is more powerful than we realize; it is an instant turning point.

Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on April 01, 2014:

Although I have never been diagnosed with S.A.D., I know that the winter months are difficult for me. Sometimes I don't realize how down I have been until the sun starts to come up earlier in the day. I find that reading more, listening to music, and getting more exercise during those months is very helpful. Great hub!

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on March 31, 2014:

Thank you Gilbert. I am reminded of the saying "bring some sunshine into your life" This morning the sun is shining and it is natures cure for the blues. I am motivated.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on March 31, 2014:

Thank you Udaya, much appreciated.

Udaya on March 31, 2014:

I want to say much , it is excellent

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on March 30, 2014:

It's interesting how seasonal environment effects our moods. Your hub reminds me of an example used in dramatic play writing. One chapter concentrated on character mood. It was about writing fiction but the example considered real life. A character was fed up with the misfortunes of his life and was on the verge of committing suicide in his dark room. But sunrise cast rays of light into his room and he changed his mind.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on March 29, 2014:

Thank you Lisavanvorst for looking in. I do hope you are benefiting from the writing and reading and hub work.

Lisa VanVorst from New Jersey on March 29, 2014:

My dad suffers from SAD and at times during this harsh winter so have I. Writing and reading hubs and reading a good book has helped. I'm not much for TV but once in a while I watch a good one. Thanks for this informative hub.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on March 29, 2014:

Thank you Eiddwen for reading and sharing. Spring is nearly here.

Eiddwen from Wales on March 29, 2014:

An interesting article on this very common ailment. Voted up and shared Colleen.


Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on March 29, 2014:

Thank you Tom for your encouraging words and linking your excellent article to this.

Thomas Swan from New Zealand on March 29, 2014:

I find exercise to be a great cure. All those endorphins and hormones are designed to help us overcome the stress of physical activity, so when it's over, the feel-good chemicals remain. Then, there's the satisfaction of knowing you've done yourself some genuine good! A great hub with lots of `soothing' quotes too! Voted up, beautiful, useful, and interesting. I'll link this to my hub on melatonin.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on March 28, 2014:

Thank you DDE for looking in. I am happy that I have given a relevant insight into this debilitating and often hidden problem.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 28, 2014:

Informative and so well approached. I never thought about S.A.D like this now I know more about my normal life.