It’s inevitable that as the winter draws in and days get darker (thanks clock change) that lots of us will start to feel a little down and start to get the ‘winter blues’. A lot of people in the UK suffer from S.A.D, also known as seasonal affective disorder, a mood disorder that causes otherwise positive people to have symptoms of depression ranging from mild to severe in the winter. Symptoms include excessive sleep, tiredness, lack of motivation, hopelessness and low moods, although the severity can range widely between people and from day to day. Whilst the exact cause isn’t known, it’s though to be to do with low light levels reducing serotonin (the happy hormone) or increasing melatonin (the hormone that allows us to sleep at night). Whatever the cause, it’s an annoying fact of winter for a lot of people, but thankfully it can be managed and reduced. Even for those without SAD, doing some of these management techniques can help with general low mood found around winter.
In my past I suffered from depression, starting in my pre-teens and drawing out for almost 10 years. Over time it diminished, thanks to the support and help of family, friends and professionals. During my late teens and early twenties it manifested as SAD – thankfully sparing me summer months but returning as the weather got colder and days darker. My experience coping with it has allowed me to spend the last two winters in relative peace from the low moods associated with SAD. So here are some of my top tips to keep happy this winter! I hope you find them as useful as I have 🙂
Get enough sleep – but don’t overdo it!
In winter all I want to do is sleep sleep sleep – biologically scientists think that’s because there used to be less food around in winter and sleeping more would mean using less energy so you didn’t have to eat as much. But nowadays with tesco just down the road and deliveroo at the other end of a phone, we don’t exactly have any food shortages to worry about! Having a good sleep schedule is important at any time of year, but especially when there is no natural light to wake you up. Set yourself a strict bedtime and wake time and try not to deviate from this. That way you’ll be getting enough sleep without getting too much and feeling lethargic from it. I aim to be in bed by 10pm, asleep by 10:15pm and up by 6:45am everyday. Sleeping more than 9h a night can leave you feeling more tired, and restricting sleep to 8-9h means that when you sleep, you sleep deeper – something we all want and need!
I cannot stress enough that exercise – although it often feels like the last thing you want to do when you’re down – is some sort of miracle drug when it comes to SAD. Of course, as with everything, this is a balance of getting enough workouts without exhausting yourself. My gage is how much I can manage – I tend to do a similar amount, allowing for 2 rest days a week. I try to workout when it’s dark outside – the pumping music and energetic atmosphere allow me to forget how dark it is and get lost in the endorphins of the workout.
Fresh air and LIGHT
With a lack of natural light being one cause of SAD and low moods, it’s not surprising that getting natural light is on my list of ways to improve symptoms. If you work full time you’ll be familiar with the sad reality of arriving at work in the dark and leaving in the dark, leaving you no time for some sunshine or even any light! Artificial light doesn’t have the right wavelengths to suppress melatonin enough so broad spectrum lights and natural light are the only two that will help with moods. I would 100% recommend getting outside for at least 20 minutes at lunchtime to make the most of the natural light and get some fresh air to keep you awake. I also have a sun lamp – a broad spectrum light that helps me to wake up and produce vitamin D in the winter – I turn it on as soon as I wake up and eat breakfast with it shining on me. I swear by it to help keep my body-clock in check when it always seems dark outside. If you really struggle with SAD I would recommend getting one of these and using it for 30 minutes every morning.
Whilst the winter can leave you reaching for the quickest pick-me-up, it’s important to remember that relying on unhealthy foods for energy can leave you feeling even more down after you eat them, often caused by a sugar crash. High carb meals, whilst delicious, should be saved for days of heavy exercise, as they cause the release of melatonin, which is often what makes you feel sleepy after a big meal. Avoid carb-heavy meals at your desk to avoid this, and try not to increase refined sugar intake, as the crash after your blood-sugar spikes can also cause low moods, not helping the situation. I try to avoid coffee in the winter because I know that if I start I will end up relying on it to feel normal, but on tired days I have some just after lunch to get through the afternoon. Research has shown that if you’re not a morning person, having coffee in the morning can mess up your body clock, making you feel weird and anxious, rather than alert.
If you’re struggling don’t be afraid to talk to family and friends – the chances are that they’ve probably felt the same way too. Research suggests that up to 40% of depression is genetic and that SAD affects 1 in 15 of the UK population. Talking through how you’re feeling (or even just talking about anything) can help alleviate symptoms. Having supportive friends and family around can make the difference between letting SAD ruin your whole winter and managing your low moods and coming out the other side with an even stronger support system. Make the most of them – they’re there because they love you and want to support you. Use that!
Make time for yourself and don’t ignore your feelings. Run a nice hot bath, light some candles and just sit, enjoying your ‘me’ time. I’m definitely guilty of pretending that I don’t need time alone, and will sometimes go for a week without spending an evening by myself. For many people, all they want is to be alone when down, but for others it’s only too easy to ignore thoughts by keeping too busy. There’s a fine line between keeping busy and ignoring your personal needs. Set aside at least one day/evening a week to pamper yourself to show your body (and mind) some love. Do a little yoga, mediation or just read a good book – it’ll do wonders for your inner energy.
I really hope these tips help you manage any winter blues you may be feeling – they’re common, everyone has their days but there are lots of things you can do to help minimise the bad days. For me, rather than being 3 months of feeling horrible, winter now comes with only a few bad days here and there, meaning I am left to enjoy the festive season with family and friends as it is meant to be enjoyed.