Despite the festive cheer ramping up even earlier this year, you may be finding the short days and dark evenings are having a negative effect on your mood and mental health. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as “winter depression”, affects about 3 people in every 100 in the UK, including Hannah, who shared her SAD coping mechanisms on her personal Instagram recently. “SAD is a type of depression that is most commonly known as the ‘Winter Blues’,” says Dr Juliet Anton, Chartered Psychologist and founder of new self-help app, AskDoc. “Symptoms of SAD include symptoms of depression (persistent low mood, a lack of interest in daily activities and feelings of despair, guilt, and worthlessness), however, it is specifically caused by the cold season, where we experience reduced sunlight and engage in limited activities in order to get through the winter months.” According to the NHS, sufferers of SAD may also experience irritability and cravings for carbs, which can lead to weight gain. Martin Preston, Founder and Chief Executive at addiction treatment centre Delamere, says that “sleeping more than usual and therefore finding it hard to wake up”, is another warning sign.
The exact cause of SAD is yet to be determined, but experts believe that the lack of exposure to sunlight during the winter months can stop the hypothalamus – the part of the brain responsible for maintaining your body’s internal balance, or homeostasis – from working properly. As a result, people suffering with SAD tend to produce more melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy and less serotonin, the hormone which affects mood, appetite and sleep, a lack of which is linked to feelings of depression. This interference with the hypothalamus also affects your bodies circadian rhythm, or body clock – lower light levels during the winter may disrupt your body clock and lead to symptoms of SAD.
It can be hard to diagnose SAD as many other types of depression and mental illness can cause similar symptoms, but if you think you are suffering, please do see your GP. From light and talking therapy to lifestyle measures, there are various steps that can be taken to manage SAD symptoms. “As difficult as this time of year may be, it’s important to know that there are plenty of proactive steps you can take to ease your symptoms,” says Martin.
Here, Martin and Juliet share their expert tips for understanding and tackling SAD symptoms this season.
Get some sunlight
Easier said than done some days in the winter, but getting a much-needed vitamin D hit can make a big difference. “Whilst sunny weather is a rare sight across the UK in winter, it is still important to head outdoors and take in the fresh air,” says Juliet. “Getting enough vitamin D is important in helping you lift your mood. If it’s dark outside, pouring with rain and you can’t bring yourself to head outdoors, sit near a window whilst working instead”. If you’ve been considering becoming a plant mum or treating yourself to a print by your favourite artist, now is the perfect time according to Martin: “Sprucing up the environment you’re in will also help – you could invest in houseplants or decorate your home with wall art to engage your senses”.
Engage in regular exercise
When you’re feeling flat, finding the motivation to exercise can be tough, but you’ll almost always feel better for it. “Encouraging hormones such as dopamine and endorphins is a fantastic way to lift your mood, especially in the winter,” says Juliet. “Travelling to and from your gym or leisure centre will expose you to the necessary sunlight, but it doesn’t have to be structured exercise – even a lunchtime stroll to your local coffee shop counts. Getting your blood pumping is an incredibly effective way to ease a low mood and will leave you feeling more positive as you tackle the remaining day.” Exercise isn’t the only way to get those endorphins flowing; “You may also benefit from engaging in mindful practices such as meditation to combat stress levels,” says Martin.
Maintain your daily schedule
“The seasons are changing, but that doesn’t mean your schedule has to,” says Martin. “If you’re used to going for a morning run, stick to this routine. The weather may be colder, but you can always wrap up. If you’ve gotten into the habit of going into the office more over the summer months, carry this on despite the chillier mornings. Setting yourself goals for the day will also put you into a more motivated mindset.”
Eat the rainbow
You may crave hearty comfort food when it’s cold and dark outside, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be healthy. “When sunshine is in short supply, infusing your diet with some healthy choices is a great way to give your mood a boost,” says Juliet. “Citrus fruits can help us to feel refreshed while green vegetables give us an influx of iron and energy – perfect for when you feel lethargic. Cooking is a great distraction and a way to de-stress, so treat making dinner as a form of self-care.” You can also up your vitamin D intake at mealtimes – think oily fish, mushrooms, egg yolks and fortified foods – or by taking a supplement.
Use cognitive behavioural therapy
If you feel comfortable doing so, ask for help. “It’s not uncommon for people to keep calm and carry on, often ignoring our mental health problems and leaving them to stack up,” says Juliet. “Much like the rest of our body, when our brain is in pain, its beneficial to speak to a mental health professional such as a psychologist. The AskDoc app aims to normalise seeking help. The depression course uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help you on your journey, which encourages you to understand your difficulties in terms of thoughts, emotions and behaviours. It then gives you skills and techniques to help you manage your difficulties in your own way.”
Try a light box
Light therapy is often the first point of call when treating SAD. According to the Mayo Clinic, research on light therapy is limited, but it appears to be effective for most people, taking effect in just days or weeks. Juliet agrees: “Bright light therapy is considered a very effective for battling S.A.D. Sitting in front of a light box for around 20 to 30 minutes a day can help encourage a chemical change in your brain that boosts your mood which in turn, addresses symptoms of SAD. Safe to use and widely available, a bit of light therapy may help you feel braver and brighter on your chilly winter commute to work.” You could also try using a natural light or wake-up alarm clock, which gradually emits light for a set period of time (usually around 30 minutes) to simulate a natural wake up on dark days.
Keep in regular with loved ones
“Another common symptom of seasonal affective disorder is finding it hard to stay in touch with friends and family,” says Martin, “while it can be quite tempting to stay secluded in your own bubble, it’s important to know that reaching out to loved ones will make you feel a little less in your head. Make a habit of regularly messaging people and organising catch-ups from time to time.”
Amp up your self-care routine
Self-care looks different for everyone, but according to Martin, creating the best self-care plan for yourself is essential. “Think about what makes you happy. This could be your favourite series or something as simple as running a bath. Whatever it is, make sure your self-care plan is guaranteed to boost your mood or at least provide you with a sense of comfort.” Try Hannah’s tip of writing down a list of activities you know will bring you joy so you have something to refer back to when SAD strikes.
The AskDoc app is available to download for free through the Apple Store (for iPhone) and Google Play (for Android), with access to free specialist courses from an expert psychologist. Users can also benefit from an optional £5 subscription to the Depression Forum once the course has been completed.