With the winter months coming, some of us might worry about being affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which is a type of depression. Commonly, SAD is called a “winter depression” as people often experience symptoms like feeling low, tired and lethargic during the dark winter months. Some people might also experience symptoms in summer while feeling better during the winter months, but most people are affected by the changing seasons. Treatment can improve these symptoms and also may be used as prophylaxis before the subsequent autumn and winter seasons. Light therapy has been used widely to support those affected, with light therapy the person should be positioned about 12 to 18 inches from a white, fluorescent light source at a standard dosage of 10,000 lux for 30 minutes per day in the early morning. Statistically significant clinical improvement has been observed after one to two weeks of light therapy.
To feel more prepared and less anxious, it may help to understand the causes and symptoms of SAD better. Often, it is associated with the reduced exposure of sunlight during the shorter days in wintertime which disrupts the hypothalamus affecting levels of melatonin (sleep hormone) and serotonin (mood, sleep and appetite hormone). Similarly, reduced light in winter might negatively affect your circadian rhythm which is our internal clock regulating our whole body system. Additional contributing mechanisms may include retinal sensitivity to light, neurotransmitter dysfunction, genetic variations affecting circadian rhythms, and serotonin levels. There might also be other triggering factors linked to inherited genes, stress, low self-esteem, loneliness, medication, drugs, anxiety disorder, traumatic experiences, or the loss of a loved one.
Some of us might recognise different symptoms which can be from psychological, physiological and social nature. Common symptoms include persistent low mood, loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities or seeing people at all, irritability and difficulty concentrating, feeling of guilt, worthlessness or hopelessness, sleeping longer or less than usual, feeling lethargic, and changes in appetite.
It is important to keep in mind that depression is a disease and if you experience five or more symptoms which endure for more than two weeks as well as interfere with your life and daily routine, it may be good to seek support with a GP or other form of professional support.
To cope with SAD and the anxiety of being affected by it you could do various things. Don’t worry if some strategies work better than the other, we are all different.
GET OUT INTO THE NATURAL LIGHT AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.
For example, go for a walk every day or sit in the garden while drinking your tea.
REACH OUT TO YOUR FRIENDS, FAMILY AND COLLEAGUES AND SHARE YOUR FEELINGS WITH THEM.
This can be through the phone or a walk together in the park. If you rather speak to someone you don’t know you could also reach out to other support options and helplines (e.g. peer support groups to speak with people who share similar experiences or Side by Side by Mind)
JOURNAL YOUR FEELINGS BY WRITING DOWN YOUR SYMPTOMS AND FEELINGS.
Here, you can note down what makes you feel better or worse and what the triggers are. Sometimes, we don’t really know what helps us until we look back and see that going for a walk always helped to increase our mood. This will also allow you to manage difficult times better. When knowing the triggers, you can avoid stressful situations or plan some time for relaxation in advance.
MANAGE YOUR STRESS AND ANXIETY BY PRACTISING RELAXATION TECHNIQUES LIKE CALM BREATHING, DEEP MUSCLE RELAXATION OR MEDITATION.
TRY TO FOSTER HEALTHY SLEEP HYGIENE
This includes 7-8 hours of sleep, going to bed and waking up at the same time and implement a pre-sleep routine like a cup of herbal tea.
PHYSICAL EXERCISE IS KEY TO LIFT YOUR MOOD AND OVERALL WELLBEING.
Even when you struggle to motivate yourself, do some gentle movements like with a yoga session on Youtube.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR DIET AND TRY TO EAT REGULAR AND HEALTHY MEALS.
If you struggle to find the motivation to cook something you can prepare it in advance so that you only have to heat it up.
AVOID DRUGS AND ALCOHOL AS THEY WILL ONLY MAKE YOU FEEL WORSE IN THE LONG RUN.
CREATE A SELF-CARE BOX WITH THINGS THAT HELP YOU FEEL BETTER AND CALM.
For example, this could be your favourite film, some happy quotes or a notebook to write your feelings downs.
There are various treatment options including light therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy which helps you to manage your unhelpful thoughts and negative emotions as well as antidepressants. You may consolidate with your GP about the best options for you.
If you have suicidal thoughts or intentions to harm yourself, you should seek support immediately. You may contact your GP, the NHS (111) or Samaritans for confidential 24h crisis support (116 123).