Wellbeing: Could you have seasonal affective disorder?

The dark, cold days can have an impact on teacher mental health - Gemma Corby explores how to protect yourself

Gemma Corby

Teacher wellbeing: The dark days of winter can lead to teachers suffering from SAD - seasonal affective disorder

I remember my English teacher explaining how he didn’t like the winter months; that arriving at school in the dark and leaving in the dark left him feeling like he never saw daylight. 

It wasn’t like him to complain or to get that personal; this was the mid-1990s and mental health was not something that was readily discussed in the classroom.

I now think that he was referring to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

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Teachers are often in school very early and leave after the sun has set, so could it be that they are disproportionately impacted?

The NHS describes SAD as a “depression that comes and goes, following a seasonal pattern”.  Symptoms include a persistent low mood; irritability; feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness; lethargy; sleeping longer than usual; finding getting out of bed difficult; and craving carbohydrates and gaining weight.

The exact cause of SAD is still up for debate, but it is thought that reduced levels of sunlight during the winter months reduce the effectiveness of the brain’s hypothalamus, which has a knock-on effect for hormone production (namely melatonin and serotonin). 

If you think you could be suffering from SAD, try these tips:

Coping with SAD

  • Go outside as much as possible. Yes, volunteer for that outside duty! Alternatively, go for a brisk walk at lunch or break time. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with depression

  • Take regular exercise; a gentle walk or bike ride will do – you don’t need to start training for the next marathon. If you can access a green space or running water, take advantage of this (connecting with nature is thought to improve feelings of wellbeing).

  • Invest in a lightbox or a dawn simulating alarm clock. Some people with SAD have found sitting by a light box for approximately 30 minutes each morning improves their mood. The boxes produce a bright light, simulating the sunlight that’s missing during the darker winter months.

  • Speak to your GP. If they diagnose you with SAD, they may recommend talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling; and/or they may prescribe an antidepressant.

  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet, particularly focusing on vitamins D and B12, lean proteins (such as white fish and lentils), folic acid (found in leafy greens, porridge oats, sunflower seeds, lentils and soy beans), and berries.

What to avoid

When it gets dark and cold, a cuppa and a biscuit seem like the perfect remedy, but consuming excessive amounts of refined sugar and caffeine can worsen symptoms of SAD. 

It is true that sugar can give you an initial boost, but this is fleeting and the crash that follows a sugar-high can actually make you feel worse. 

Caffeine suppresses serotonin, the lack of which is a cause of SAD, so limit your intake and avoid drinking it after 2pm. Note, green tea also contains caffeine.

Gemma Corby is a former special educational needs and disability coordinator (Sendco) and freelance writer

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Gemma Corby

Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and former special educational needs and disability coordinator

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