27 Jun 2022

ASK THE DOC: Light up your life to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Dr Eddie Murphy gives his expert views

ASK THE DOC: Light up your life to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Storm Lorenzo has heralded in darker nights and shorter days. For some people, their mood can take a hit, but for others this hit is more serious and is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year for sufferers. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the autumn and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.

Around 2-10% of Europeans and North Americans are affected by SAD, with three-quarters of them being women; although both genders are affected equally in older age.

Some 60% of people suffering from SAD get it to varying degrees every winter, which is an awful lot of time spent feeling gloomy.

Given that there is a lot of crossover between SAD and other forms of depression, it is always wise to discuss any feelings of low mood with your GP.

They can help you get the appropriate support and treatment you may require.

Where does SAD
come from?

The specific cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. Some factors that may come into play include:

l Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in autumn and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.

l Your serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.

l Your melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Seasonal affective disorder is diagnosed more often in women than in men, and SAD occurs more frequently in younger adults than in older adults. Factors that may increase your risk of seasonal affective disorder include:

l Family history. People with SAD may be more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.

l Having major depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally if you have one of these conditions.

l Living far from the equator. SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months.


Treatment for SAD may include light therapy (phototherapy), medications and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Phototherapy: We know that SAD is caused by lack of light and that people with SAD need much more light to function normally than others do. So it is not surprising that the main treatment for SAD is bright light. It has been proven to be effective in up to 85% of people diagnosed with SAD.

Lightboxes are devices that come in all different sizes and designs. The user sits in front of the lightbox so that bright light enters the eyes. Light treatment has to be used every day in winter to enable people with SAD to lead a normal life.

When treatment starts, it usually takes three to four days to work, buthe effect wears off if it is not used for three to four days. Treatment should start in early autumn, ideally before symptoms start, and continue until spring. It can also be used on dull, cloudy days in summer.

Light levels in the Ireland are very changeable — we can have several seasons in one day — and some people can be affected by a prolonged downturn in the weather. Although the worst time is inevitably midwinter, a wet June can sometimes be worse than a sunny February, so be adaptable. It’s all about light!

Using light therapy is one the mainstay of treatment for SAD at the moment. A really useful website is

If you cannot access light therapy, try to make your days as bright as possible — work next to a window, have lights and lamps on at home, spend as much time as possible outdoors.

Beware that people with macular degeneration, retinal disease or photosensitive skin conditions or medications should not use light therapy. Seek the advice of your doctor if you are unsure.

Medicines: Drug treatments for SAD can be in used in combination with light therapy. They can also be used alone, which is particularly useful for those people who do not respond to light treatment. All drug treatments are prescribed by your GP.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): The therapy space allows people to talk about the impact of SAD and can assist people with SAD to make positive, constructive changes to their winter daily routines. It may help them to feel better about the fact that they need to adapt to winter rather than attempt to carry on regardless. They may begin to feel less guilty or frustrated if things are not the same as they are at other times of the year.

Finally, embrace the concept of hygge.

Learn the art of hygge — pronounced “hooga” — from Scandinavian countries, where they barely see daylight for weeks. SAD is therefore a significant problem, but they tackle this through embracing the concept of hygge. In essence, hygge means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with family and friends. Sometimes, rather than resisting, it’s easier to go with the flow, go with the winter, the lights, fires, wrapping up warm, and dinners with friends.

Dr Eddie Murphy runs a psychological and counselling service in Portarlington, Co Laois. If you are organising a speaker or training for school, community, voluntary, sporting or work groups, call Dr Eddie on 087 1302899 or go to dr.eddie.murphy.psychologist

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