Healthy Town: Managing seasonal affective disorder
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a very real issue which affects many people when the days begin to get shorter
Light therapy is a common treatment for a variety of conditions, from auto-immune disorders like psoriasis and eczema, to wound healing, to depression and seasonal affective disorder, to circadian rhythm sleep disorders
Everyone can feel sad from time to time but during the autumn and winter months, this feeling can be more prevalent than ever. In fact has been recognised as a form of depression which affects many people who unconsciously yearn for more sunlight.
Dubbed SAD, seasonal affective disorder is a very real issue which affects many people when the days begin to get shorter. The exact cause isn’t fully understood but it is presumed to be triggered by the reduction of natural light at that time of year. The main theory is that limited sunlight affects part of the brain which is responsible for certain functions which can impact mood and wellbeing.
John Saunders, director of See Change and Shine says the condition is recognised by signs akin to depression, but is very treatable.
“SAD can be treated with a mix of talk therapies and medication,” he says. “And recognising the importance of looking after our mental health is vital to our quality of lives.”
Indeed, it’s only in recent years that people have viewed mental health in the same way we see physical health. The key thing people have come to realise is that we can influence our mental health and in doing so, improve our day-to-day lives.
The expert says many factors influence our mental health, which in turn has a deep impact on our lives and the people around us - and he believes the focus on positive mental health during the Pfizer Healthy Towns programme will be of great benefit to people showing signs of both SAD, and other issues.
“Stress, our quality of sleep and the relationships we keep with family and friends all contribute to our mental health,” he says. “Our environment too, for example, our homes and the towns we live in, significantly influence people’s quality of life, which in turn impacts our mental health.
“We know from our work in Shine that when people who experience mental health difficulties come together to work on a project, whatever it may be, they naturally receive support from that group. People innately want to connect - so socialising and coming together due to a common interest has great benefits.”
Dr Harry Barry agrees and also says we need to learn to treat mental health just the same as we treat physical health - as in doing so we will recognise the symptoms of SAD and other conditions and be encouraged to talk about them.
“All of us need to learn to identify and feel comfortable expressing our emotions like anxiety, sadness, depression, hurt and so on,” he says. “This is the first step to gaining emotional resilience. We need to realise that the more we ruminate on problems in our emotional mind, the greater they will become.
“Healthy Town is a wonderful initiative because it encourages us to see mental health not just as an individual personal issue but one for all of us in the community. We all are vulnerable at different stages in our lives to episodes of stress, anxiety and depression. We must as a community be there for one another. The first step is information, the second support as a community for each other when one of us is in trouble.”
And Dr Barry says there are some early warning signs of SAD.
“It presents with symptoms of low mood during autumn and winter months, associated with a craving for food and weight gain,” he says. “These symptoms begin to ease when the light comes back in the spring.
“It is a genetic condition which affects our serotonin system and is best treated with the use of light boxes and dawn simulation lamps which tries to fool the brain into thinking it is still summer. In severe cases, medication may also be required for the duration of the winter.”
Other symptoms of poor mental health include:
- Fatigue which is clearly not physical in nature
- Sleep difficulties, which are new
- Constantly ‘tired but wired’
- Losing enjoyment in, and motivation about, life
- Losing appetite
- Feeling negative about everything
- Believing one is worthless
- Thoughts of self-harm
- Panic attacks
- Constantly worrying and catastrophising
Recognising mental health issues and asking for help is vital, but Dr Julie Broderick, assistant professor in physiotherapy, Trinity College Dublin, says one of the ways of dealing with conditions such as SAD is to engage in more exercise.
“Mental health can be considered on a spectrum and one in four of us will experience some kind of mental health problem during our lifetime,” she says. “Some mental health problems can be ‘subclinical’ and be helped or even managed by regular physical activity. In mild-moderate depression (such as SAD), a Cochrane review has shown that sufficient levels of physical activity can be as effective as drugs or talking therapies.
“However, even though you always feel better after a bout of physical activity it is important to note that being more physically active is not a panacea. If you are on prescribed anti-depressants for example it is crucially important to take your medication as advised. Being more physically active can work very well alongside your medication, but not as a replacement”.
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