The temperature goes down, days get shorter, you wake up in the morning and outside it is already dark … you get out from work and outside it is still dark. You hope that the day will pass as fast as possible so that you can go directly back home, sleep and wait for spring to come back. You have the feeling of having become like a bear in hibernation: you have interest in doing nothing, you are only very tired, irritable and maybe more hungry than usual.
Why is this happening?
The change of season, in particular the shift from summer to autumn/winter in northern Europe, can be tough especially in countries situated far from the equator, where the amount of light is significantly different among the seasons.
Researchers have found that light has a significant impact on our circadian rhythms and on the production of some hormones; in particular, the most affected hormones seem to be melatonin, responsible for sleep patterns, and serotonin, a hormone linked to mood.
Therefore it seems normal to experience a slight effect of the lack of light on our mood, the so-called seasonal sadness, but usually this effect doesn’t have a significant impact on our daily life and it doesn’t prevent us to efficiently carry out our daily duties and activities.
On the contrary, for around the 2-3% of the adult european population autumn blues take the form of a real psychiatric disorder: the Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Very often SAD symptoms show up in autumn, they worsen in January – February and tend to disappear with the arrival of spring.
SAD implies severe depressive symptoms such as a persistent low mood, loss of interest/pleasure in everyday activities, lack of energy, sleeping and eating more than usual, feelings of guilt or despair.
To diagnose SAD these symptoms must begin and end always in the same seasons and must be experienced for at least two consecutive years. Interestingly women are six times more at risk to developing SAD then men.
What to do
In general if you are experiencing a slight seasonal sadness, then taking care of yourself, your habits and your relationships can be a good start in dealing with it and feeling better.
Taking care of ourselves implies caring for our body as well: having a good and healthy diet and physical exercise are recommended. At the same time taking care of our relationships is important: researchers showed that perceiving a good social support is a protective factor for many psychological difficulties.
Another good way of taking care of our seasonal sadness is stimulating emotions that are opposite to the problematic ones; if you feel down you may try to work on your everyday life to improve the amount of positive events that can foster a better mood. A way of tracking this exercise is keeping a diary of pleasurable activities so that you can monitor your progress and the impact that these activities have on your mood.
If you think that you may be suffering from SAD then seeking help to your GP is recommended. Psychotherapy can help you out as well in dealing with these seasonal sadness. Cognitive behavioural psychotherapy is indeed very recommended by NICE for the treatment of mild and moderate depressive states.