A one-off piece from Gemma David of The Quiet Heart on helping your child through Seasonal Affective Disorder
As the seasons change from summer to autumn and into winter, some people, including children, can experience SAD (seasonal affective disorder).
But what is it, and what can you do to help? We’ve asked for advice from the incredible Gemma David, also known as The Quiet Heart, who has, in addition, produced a series of meditations for kids for us. She explains more about it and offers some tips on what to do to support your child’s mental health if they’re affected.
Please do seek professional help if your child’s symptoms are severe
For some, the signs of autumns can be exciting and something to look forward to: crisp, leafy walks, bonfires, woodsmoke, and cosy nights in. But for a large group of people, these signs can activate a sense of dread as this time of year signals the return of their seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD isn’t classified as a specific disorder but a type of depression that affects as many as 1 in 3 people during the winter months or at certain times of the year. Young people and children can be affected in the same way as adults with symptoms that are activated by the reduction in sunlight and spending less time outside.
Research is unable to pinpoint the exact cause of SAD but the general conclusion is that it is directly linked to the amount of sunlight that we are exposed to. The brain receives information from our five senses to help us understand the world and take action.
The eyes are part of our nervous system and play a crucial role in regulating our body and its internal rhythms – known as circadian rhythms. These rhythms set the tone for our all our bodily systems that help us wake up, rest and go to sleep at the right times of day.
We have light receptor cells in our eyes which activate a cascade of chemicals that help us move, eat and sleep.
The chemicals directly affected by the light are melatonin and serotonin which are important in the regulation of sleep and mood.
A diagnosis of SAD is usually considered when there is the presence of the following symptoms that may have been present for more than a couple of weeks:
~ Feeling sad irritable, anxious and worthless ~
~ Having negative thought patterns ~
~ Not wanting to go out or connect with people or friends ~
~ Is really tired and sluggish ~
~ Is sleeping differently ~
~ Is having difficulty concentrating ~
With the pandemic affecting many of our young people’s mental health, it could be that you are noticing some of the symptoms mentioned, and given that cases of anxiety and depression in young people have risen exponentially in the last 18 months, it’s important to differentiate and get the appropriate support.
Look for patterns, and signs, make notes and follow your instinct and if you feel you need some guidance or help, speak to your GP in the first instance.
Other methods that can support your young person’s mental health are varied, and could be incorporated into a new family routine or ritual.
Sunlight exposure for between 10-30 mins in the morning and the evening has a powerful effect on our nervous system. Exposing the eyes to light in this way (even when overcast) stimulates the cells in our brains which help regulate the rhythm of our daily internal clock, helping support the production of serotonin and then the right amount of melatonin to help us fall asleep.
Go on walks, encourage a collection of seasonal objects and bring them home. Observe the changing of the seasons as a conversation starter about rhythms and that things always change.
“Science has demonstrated that the less daylight we are exposed to directly increases the production of melatonin, making us feel more sleepy and reduces the production of serotonin which lowers our mood.”
Vitamin D and magnesium are essential for many important functions in the body. When we are indoors for a long period of time or under stress, deficiencies in these vitamins and minerals can show up as fatigue, muscle aches, low mood and anxiety.
Fish Oil (containing EPA) has been shown in studies to be as beneficial as SSRIs (antidepressants) in helping depression/low mood. The oil helps regulate serotonin in the brain as well as having a strong anti-inflammatory effect on the body, both of which are powerful mood boosters.
Please speak to a trained nutritionist about dosages for young people. Due to the lack of sunlight in the UK, the NHS recommends that a Vitamin D supplement is taken between the months of September to March.
Stick to regular routines for eating and sleeping at home, mainly to provide a sense of security and consistency through these months. If you can, encourage journaling and conversations about feelings to maintain connections, communication and relationships.
As challenging as this may be with someone who has SAD, the mental and physical effects of exercise are numerous. It doesn’t have to be high intensity cardio, a simple walk has a fantastic effect on the brain and body but if the heart rate is increased, this increases the benefits more so. Not only is the mood lifted but the quality of sleep increases when we move our bodies.
If getting out of the house is hard, try dancing, shaking the whole body to good music or yoga. Coming together as a family can be a great source of support for your young person.
If you involve them in ideas for a plan, give them autonomy for their choice of strategy, you are more likely to move through these challenging months together, as a team.