Winter has begun and the hours of daylight are decreasing more and more every day. Whilst some love winter and the upcoming holidays, for many the loss of natural light and colder weather dramatically impacts their mental wellbeing.
What is ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the term used to describe the depression that falls over many and leaves them with poor mental wellbeing throughout the winter. It effects a large number of the population with varying degrees of severity.
Dr Lukmanji et. al (2020) found that teenagers and young adults are especially prone to SAD as they are recorded to experience a wider spectrum of symptoms of depression whilst most adults only displayed symptoms relating to sleep and appetite disturbances.
Those already with mental health problems are also more likely to be affected by the changings in season, as Dr Fonte and Coutinho (2021) report.
There are many different symptoms associated with SAD and everyone’s experience is different. Some of the symptoms include:
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to wake up in the morning
- Feelings of despair, worthlessness, and guilt
- Persistent low mood
- Isolating yourself from social situations
- Loss of pleasure or interest in activities you normally enjoy
- Suicidal feelings
- Craving carbs, sweets, and other comfort foods
- Weight gain
- Decreased sex drive
- Being more prone to physical health conditions
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and believe you may be affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder, you should seek help.
We aren’t sure what causes SAD but some of the triggers that we think affect it are:
Production of melatonin: Melatonin is the hormone that makes you feel tired. People with SAD are reported to produce higher levels of melatonin which leads to those symptoms of excessive tiredness and loss of concentration.
Production of serotonin: Serotonin is the hormone that affects your mood, appetite, and sleep. The lack of sunlight in winter may lead to lower serotonin levels which then causes symptoms of depression.
The Circadian Rhythm: Our body runs on an internal clock which uses sunlight to time various important functions such as when you wake up, but light can also affect the parts of your brain that manage appetite, mood, and activity. Lower levels of light disrupt your body clock and could cause these depression symptoms.
The weather and temperature: We all react to weather differently – some people feel more uncomfortable in colder temperatures than others. These uncomfortable reactions may be contributing to developing depressive symptoms or making existing depression worse.
Since SAD can impact us to so extremely, we need to tackle these symptoms so we can continue to live our lives during these darker months. Here is a list of some helpful tips and tricks:
Keep a diary: Writing down your thoughts and feelings each day will help you see a pattern in your behaviour and is useful for determining various factors that may be triggering these reactions.
Plan ahead: If you know that the colder months affect your mental health, it’s important to create a ‘game plan’ for how you will tackle the season. Keep an eye on important dates and events that may make you more stressed and make sure that you have relaxing and fun activities to relieve these stressors.
Learn ways to relax: Find out what makes you relax and destress. Try out some relaxation techniques like breathing exercises and mindfulness, or go for a nature walk in the daylight.
Keep active: Doing regular, fun exercise will help you keep motivated and energised. If possible, try exercising outside in the natural daylight.
Do something you enjoy every day: Do something for yourself every day. This can be something as simple as cooking yourself a nice meal, listening to some favourite songs, or picking up a new hobby.
Prioritise social activities: When we’re feeling symptoms of depression, our first instinct is to isolate from social situations. Fighting this urge and scheduling regular catchups with friends and family will help us feel supported and loved.
Eat a healthy diet: There is a pull towards carbohydrates and sugars when we are feeling down, but comfort food doesn’t have to be unhealthy. BBC good food has created a useful list of various healthy comfort foods that are perfect for winter.
Food rich in omega 3 fats (i.e. oily fish, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseeds) are shown to improve your mood and may even boost the effectiveness of antidepressant medication.
It is also important to be aware of your vitamin D intake as The National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health has found that those with SAD have lower levels of vitamin D which may be contributing to depressive symptoms.
Stick to a schedule: Having a set schedule for when you wake up, exercise, eat, and work will help you establish, and keep to, healthy habits.
Keep warm: Feeling cold makes us lethargic and unmotivated. Keep layered up when you go outside and drinking hot drinks and using hot water bottles will keep you warm when you’re inside.
Maximise light exposure: Light therapy is used in the medical treatment of SAD, but there are ways you can maximise the natural light in your daily life. Make sure that once the sun rises you have the blinds and curtains pulled back to allow all the light in, and when the sun sets you close the curtains again.
If you wake up before the sun rises, you might want to consider a dawn simulator light which mimics the rising sun and helps your body recognise that it’s time to wake up.
Brightening up your surroundings with light paint and plants will also help create light and comforting spaces.
Therapy: Seasonal Affective Disorder has many symptoms of depression and should be taken seriously. Speaking to a professional about your mental wellbeing will provide you with essential support and teach you important coping mechanisms for dealing with these symptoms.
See our article on the benefits of therapy for more information.
We are only at the beginning of these darker, colder months and the holiday season can seem daunting to those with Seasonal Affective Disorder. But you must remember that you are not alone and there are ways to help you feel better and tackle these upcoming months with confidence.
If you need support or just a kind ear to listen, at Mind Space we have trusted and highly skilled licensed therapists available 24 hours a day. We can help you take the steps to improve your life, no matter what challenges you are facing in complete confidence.
Get some MindSpace, call us on 0207 553 5010.