It’s time to talk about Seasonal depression in the Netherlands and where to get help. Mental health in the Netherlands is a topic that has been discussed by us before, but today we want to focus on Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
Before we dive into the topic of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), please consider contacting your GP as soon as you can if you or someone you know is exhibiting very serious symptoms of a breakdown, or could potentially harm themselves or people around them. You can also call these helplines:
- Suicide prevention Netherlands: 0900 – 0113
- Samaritans: 0602 222 88
We can also understand the nervousness and anxiety you must feel when moving to a new country with an already existing mental or physical health issue.
If you want to know everything about healthcare and health insurance in the Netherlands, check out our guide here. You can also find out everything you need to know about mental healthcare in the Netherlands here.
Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD
Have you ever had the feeling that you’re entering into hibernation mode during the winter months, where you sleep way too much or too little, eat way too much or too little, and avoid social gatherings because you seriously lack the motivation and energy to get out of your house?
You might tell yourself that you just can’t be bothered to go out because it’s too cold outside, and that you prefer your own company, and so on and so forth.
But when you find it hard to get out of your house for days at a time because these thoughts get very loud and start affecting your quality of life, it’s not a good sign.
Even running necessary errands like going to the grocery store for the week becomes a chore, and the things on your to-do list just keep getting longer.
You end up in a never-ending loop in your own head because you know the things you should be doing that will make you feel better, but somehow your body does not want to listen to you, or your brain convinces you otherwise.
If left untreated, it can lead to worse symptoms of suicidal thoughts, and become potentially harmful to yourself.
If you feel like this at around the same time of the year, then you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. It is different from depression, where your symptoms come knocking on your door and push you further into your own head, every autumn and winter time.
It is a type of major depressive disorder, and people with this disorder show symptoms during late autumn or early winter and resume to normal mental health during the spring and summer.
There are also cases where the symptoms begin in spring or summer. This disorder makes the person exhibit mild to moderate depressive symptoms, which start to get more severe as the season continues.
According to Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of SAD include but are not limited to:
- Feeling depressed for a majority of the day, on most days
- Not having the motivation or interest to do things you once enjoyed
- Lack of energy
- Lack of sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much
- Eating too much or too little
- Finding it hard to focus
- Feelings of hopelessness, or guilt
- Suicidal thoughts or thoughts about death
Symptoms in winter and autumn
These are the symptoms which are specific to winter and autumn depression, and may include:
- Change in appetite, and craving more carbohydrate-rich foods
- Gaining weight
- Feeling tired all the time
Symptoms in summer and spring
These are the symptoms which are specific to summer and spring depression, and may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Leading to weight loss
- Restlessness or anxiety
What causes SAD?
SAD was first mentioned in medical literature as early as 1845 and was dubbed as such only in the 1980s. The causes of this disorder are yet to be established. However, there is a correlation between SAD and a lack of light.
Without getting bogged down with too much medical terminology, the important terms to know about are: the hypothalamus, the part of your brain that maintains the balance and stability of your body (homeostasis) and hormonal balance; melatonin, the hormone which monitors your sleep cycles; and serotonin, the brain chemical or neurotransmitter which affects your mood.
When there is a lack of light, the hypothalamus does not work properly, putting your biological clock completely out of balance. Reduced light causes a drop in serotonin levels, which leads to symptoms of depression.
Melatonin levels are affected by the change in seasons, where darkness produces more of the hormone, thus inducing sluggishness.
In the summer or spring, the body could exhaust the hypothalamus during the winter months, thus leading to the improper functioning of this part of your brain.
Who is more likely to suffer from SAD?
This disorder has been diagnosed more in women than in men, and it affects younger adults more than older adults. The risk of you having the disorder increases if you have a blood relative who has this disorder, or another form of depression.
If you have major depression or bipolar disorder, your symptoms can worsen during the same time of the year.
Some people with bipolar disorder have symptoms of mania or hypomania (a less intense form of mania) during the summer and spring months, and symptoms of depression during the autumn and winter months.
If you live far away from the equator, like all of us in the Netherlands, you could be affected by this disorder. This could be because of the lack of sunlight during winter, and the long days during the summer.
If you have or are at risk for any of the above-mentioned factors, be sure to tell your doctor or the mental health professional who’s treating you.
What can be done?
If you are exhibiting mild symptoms, the following tips may help. But seek medical help as soon as possible before it starts to severely affect your work and quality of life. I am not a mental health professional, so I am not speaking on their behalf.
Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule
As mentioned before, it can get difficult to wake up in the morning or get to bed at night because of changes in your hormone and brain chemical levels.
If it’s only mild symptoms that you are exhibiting, try to get to bed at the same time every day, and wake up at the same time. Be sure to get 7-8 hours of sleep at least, between the same times.
Be sure not to use your computer, or stare at your phone screen right before bed, or stimulate your brain too much. Make your room as dark as possible by closing the curtains, so that no streetlights keep you up. You can take a relaxing shower, have a cup of chamomile tea, or get your to-do list together for the next day.
Bonus points if you want to write down a few good things that happened to you that day because being depressed can make you feel like nothing is going right.
Get a routine together, and try to stick to it every day!
Dust off your gym clothes
Exercise, even when your brain tells you not to. If you’re like me, a person with a severe lack of physical activity in their life, start off small: start with a nice long walk.
Do this for a week, increasing your distance slowly. Slowly build up your stamina by turning your walks into jogs, and try to keep increasing the distance you cover.
If jogging is not your thing, we are in the Netherlands! Your bike is there when you need it. You can also join the gym, take up yoga, try zumba, salsa, kick-boxing, or even rock climbing! Basically, any physical activity is good for you. It is up to you to decide what kind.
The important thing is to make it a routine and stick to it, exactly like your sleeping schedule. Add light cardio, or a walk into your agendas, and actually do it. You will notice how much this will help soon enough.
Yes, there is something called a SAD lamp, and you can buy it on Bol or Cool Blue! It’s basically a lamp that emits light which mimics sunshine.
Portable sizes can be bought, and you can keep one in your office, and use it throughout the day while you work away at your computer. But be sure to consult your doctor so that it is the most effective for you.
“Sunshine” vitamin supplements
The lack of sunlight could lead to serious Vitamin D deficiency. When there is no natural source, like the sun, it is important to incorporate it into your diet.
The foods which are rich in this vitamin are dairy products like milk (soy milk for the vegans), cheese, and citrus fruits like oranges. Consult your doctor for more options, and to consider adding Vitamin D supplements into your routine. They can help you determine the dosage.
Use your support system
Your support system is the group of people who you can always rely on to take care of you when you cannot take care of yourself.
Living as an expat, especially if you have recently arrived, can be extremely lonely. It is understandable if you feel like you do not have anyone like this in the country yet.
It becomes difficult to be social if your symptoms are really severe, and that is a point you do not want to reach. Moving to a new country is all about breaking out of your shell, right?
You can build that support system by going to classes (this is where that physical activity tip also comes into good use), and meeting people with similar interests. Invite your co-workers out for lunch, or have them over for dinner.
Or turn that around if you know someone is new, and do not know a lot of people. You know how hard it is to be the new kid on the block. Use your experience so that it is a little bit easier for the newbies. We are all in this together, after all!
But, if none of these tips helps you, contact your GP and get help, because mental health sometimes needs additional help.
Have you experienced seasonal depression in the Netherlands before? Do you have more tips? Let us know in the comments below!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in February 2019, and was fully updated in November 2022 for your reading pleasure.