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Does the Change in Season Affect Your Mood?

Woman in hoodie staring out to sea in winter

Feeling a little low? Suffering from lethargy, lack of motivation or poor concentration, or maybe you have the urge to hibernate? You could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – an increasingly recognised syndrome, thought to be associated with a lack of sunlight and common for this time of year.

It’s not known why, but SAD is more prevalent in females than males. It is also generally found in people over the age of 20. Symptoms include feeling sad, depressed and lacking in concentration, energy or motivation. You might also find you have problems sleeping or you’ve gained weight. 

“SAD occurs because a lack of natural daylight leads to a drop in serotonin and melatonin levels in the brain. It disrupts the body’s natural clock,” says clinical psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy, who runs corporate wellness programmes.

View of bare trees through window in winter

Although there’s little research on the subject in Ireland, a study by the Weather Channel and YouGov in 2014 found that as many as 29 per cent of people in the UK suffer from some level of SAD during the winter.

“There’s no doubt that some people who would usually enjoy good mental health, will experience SAD at this time of year and find themselves depressed,” says Dr Murphy. “But there are ways of combatting it.”

man jogging on path in park

1. Get Moving

It’s cold outside, you feel like staying indoors and watching TV on the couch. It’s easy to make excuses not to exercise in the middle of winter. But physical activity impacts on mood as it raises the serotonin levels in the brain and therefore helps in treating SAD. “Any form of exercise – even a brisk 30-minute walk in the open air will help to alleviate your mood,” says Dr. Murphy.

2. Eat Well

It’s normal to crave carbs during the winter as the body has a natural urge to put on fat to keep warm. But a balanced nutritious diet with plenty of green leafy vegetables and plant-based foods serves us better. Not only does it balance our sugar levels, it makes us less likely to put on weight. 


3. Talk it Out

A problem shared is a problem halved. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings at this time of year with family or friends. Chances are they may be experiencing the same symptoms too and you can support each other.

4. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which emphasises both the importance of ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’ differently, is a proven way to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. “It encourages people suffering from the syndrome to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, and therefore better manage stress,” says Dr Murphy. “It also emphasises ‘doing’ things to help the disorder. For example, by going outside you expose yourself to more natural light.”
Many approved psychologists and psychotherapists practice CBT. However, some use it more than others. “Check whether they have significant training and how much they use it in their practice,” advises Dr Murphy. Prices for therapy sessions vary from €50 to €150.

5. Light Box Therapy

This is the number one way of treating SAD and involves the use of specially designed light boxes, which mimic daylight and cause a change in the chemistry of the brain. “There is limited research around the use of light boxes in treating SAD,” says Dr Murphy. “But they do seem to make a difference to people with the condition.”
Light boxes can be bought online and should be medically approved. Prices typically start at €80 per box and go upwards depending on the size.

“SAD is associated with the seasons and will therefore come to an end with the winter,” says Dr Murphy. “Hope is the biggest antidote to depression and it’s important for people affected by it to remember that it’s a temporary state and one which will pass as the winter ends. There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

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