Sunshine and happiness

Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder


What causes seasonal affective disorder and what role does the sunshine play in our happiness?

The sun is out and suddenly everything seems a little brighter. People rush out to sit in the warmth, dash to the beach, out come the BBQ’s, on go the shorts and sandals (and sometimes black socks! I have never understood why men that do that?), and we burn our skin because having a tan projects healthiness (something which has changed through time, at one point being tanned meant you worked outdoors and that was looked down upon by the upper classes).

But what is different? We still have the same problems in our lives. We still have anxiety or depression, or stress but on a warm sunny day, we tend to feel a little better. Even the smell of the sun tan lotion I applied this morning brought back happy holiday memories. The difference is that its warmer which is always nice and when the sun shines we get the ultraviolet light that shines on our retinas, and onto the optic nerve which send nice little signals to the brain and the brain produces serotonin. This is our mood enhancing hormone that is deficient in many people suffering from depression.

Seasonal affective disorder is very much triggered by this lack of feel good hormone, a lack of sunlight leads to a reduced level of serotonin.

Sunlight also decreases our levels of melatonin, which is the hormone which helps us to sleep, so we feel more awake and vibrant during the sunlight hours. Then the sun goes down and the melatonin levels begin to rise again, helping us relax and eventually fall asleep.

Also, sunlight helps the body produce vitamin D, which is very important in keeping our bodies happy. So when we moan about it raining or being overcast we should spare a thought for those countries that are plunged into darkness for months on end. People in countries where SAD (Seasonal affective disorder) is prevalent, can suffer long bouts of depression, the Nordic countries or Alaska for example.

Of course we don’t have to live in one of those countries. People in the UK also suffer form SAD, due to a lack of daylight in the winter months. Hypnotherapy and psychotherapy work very well in helping people through Seasonal affective disorder, and in some instances people buy a SAD lamp which emits UV rays onto the retina, helping the brain produce more serotonin and reduce melatonin.

People often feel more lethargic in the winter and sleep more because of the quality of light. But those mornings where the sun is shining through the curtains, it seems so much easier to jump out of bed! So our moods alternate. However, in the case of someone suffering with SAD, things appear a lot more serious. Typically, in the UK, the onset of Seasonal affective disorder happens any time from October right the way through to march or April.

Lets have a look at the symptoms:

  • Deficiency of get-up-and-go for daily tasks
  • Being more disposed to to sickness – certain individuals with SAD might have a reduced ‘immune system’ throughout the winter months, so it is likely that they may get colds, illnesses or even infections
  • Problems in sleeping
  • Depression – sadness, tearfulness and other negative emotions, occasionally feelings of hopelessness and desperation
  • Changes in disposition or temperament – in specific individuals, surges of elation and exuberance (recognised as hypo-mania) in spring and autumn months
  • Anxiety – tension and incapacity to manage with daily pressures; occasional panic attacks
  • Social problems – tetchiness, and avoiding seeing other people; obnoxious conduct
  • Problems in concentrating
  • Eating in abundance – chiefly desiring carbohydrates, which leads to weight gain (this may exacerbate the feelings of negativity)
  • Reduced appetite for sex
  • Alcohol addiction and drug misuse


So what can we do about this problem?

Well, therapy can help with the feelings and some individuals are prescribes SSRI’s (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) which help restore levels of serotonin.

There is also ‘Light therapy’, in which the individual is exposed to a bright light that emits UV onto the retinas which mimics the sunlight. This has proven to be very effective for some people. You can buy home versions of these light boxes. They aren’t cheap by any means, but to someone suffering with SAD, they are a worthwhile investment.






Image(s): Rawich/