Seasonal Affective Disorder: Managing the Winter Blues
With the festive season over and Blue Monday fast approaching, many of us may be exhibiting symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD affects 1 in 3 people in the UK, including adults and children. 57% of adults say their overall mood is worse in winter than summer, with 40% suffering from fatigue.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is a type of depression that occurs at certain times of the year, predominantly throughout winter.
This condition, also known as the ‘Winter Blues’ or ‘Winter Depression’, tends to correlate with reduced exposure to natural sunlight, affecting mood regulation and circadian rhythms.
Symptoms of SAD typically diminish or vanish during spring or summer when natural light exposure increases, which is what distinguishes SAD from other forms of depression.
What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, although the main theory is that the lack of sunlight may disrupt the functioning of part of the brain called the hypothalamus, therefore impacting:
- Melatonin production: This hormone, responsible for inducing sleepiness, may be overproduced in individuals with SAD.
- Serotonin production: Reduced sunlight might lead to lower serotonin levels, affecting mood, appetite, and sleep, contributing to feelings of depression.
- Circadian rhythm: Sunlight regulates vital functions tied to our internal body clock, such as waking up. Decreased light levels in winter could disrupt this rhythm, resulting in SAD symptoms.
What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD symptoms can vary in severity and may include:
- Persistent low mood
- Loss of pleasure or interest in normal activities
- Social withdrawal, pulling away from social interactions or activities
- Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
- Feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
- Sleep changes – sleeping more than usual (hypersomnia) or experiencing insomnia
- Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased sex drive
These symptoms can be severe for some people and significantly impact their day-to-day activities.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways you can effectively manage SAD symptoms which can lead to a more positive and fulfilling winter season!
How can I manage Seasonal Affective Disorder?
It’s important to remember that SAD affects everyone differently; what works for one person might not work for another.
If you are experiencing SAD symptoms or simply feel you could benefit from a general mood uplift, consider our recommendations below:
Spend time outdoors
Getting sunlight during daylight hours benefits our mood and mental health by helping us stay alert, promoting Vitamin D production and boosting serotonin levels. Exposure to sunlight in the morning can help you sleep at night because it helps reset your body’s inner ‘sleep clock’.
Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, lifts mood, increases energy levels and helps improve sleep patterns. Aiming for a daily daytime walk (with a friend, or by yourself) can help you get your daily dose of sunlight and exercise and provide an opportunity for social connection.
Studies indicate that maintaining warmth can decrease winter blues symptoms by 50%, so keep your home between 18C and 21C if possible. Embrace warm clothing, cosy socks, and hot water bottles, and indulge in warm beverages and meals to combat the effects of the colder months.
People often find light therapy effective for seasonal depression. One way to get light therapy at home in winter is to sit in front of a light box for up to 2 hours daily. Lightboxes cost about £100 and give out very bright light at least ten times stronger than ordinary lighting.
Prioritising a well-rounded diet abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats enhances mood and increases energy levels. Meals like soups and casseroles offer hearty and nutritious options, providing comfort and warmth.
Stick to a routine
Establishing consistent sleep patterns and adhering to a regular daily routine helps regulate your body’s internal clock. This enhances both sleep quality and daytime energy levels, consequently uplifting mood!
During dark and cold days, withdrawing socially can be tempting. However, nurturing relationships with loved ones and engaging in social activities can significantly benefit mental wellbeing and help combat the winter blues.
Take up a new hobby
Sue Pavlovich from the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA) suggests that engaging in a new interest appears to help prevent symptoms of SAD. “It could be anything – from playing bridge, singing, or knitting to joining a gym, maintaining a journal, or writing a blog,” she emphasises. “The crucial aspect is having something to anticipate and focus on.”
Create a comfortable environment
Enhance the brightness of your living and working environments by opening the curtains to invite natural light, incorporate bright lighting, and consider painting walls in cheerful, light hues. These changes can significantly uplift the ambience and create a more positive, vibrant atmosphere.
Consider professional help
Should symptoms disrupt your daily life, work, or connections, we always advise you to seek professional assistance from your workplace Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or a GP.
Therapeutic approaches like counselling, psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and when appropriate, medication, can all be extremely beneficial in managing and alleviating symptoms and getting you back to your upbeat self.
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