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According to estimates from NHS Inform, the winter blues – also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – affects around two million people in the UK, and more than 12 million across northern Europe.
SAD is a type of depression or low mood that people experience during particular seasons or times of the year, especially winter. It can have some of the same symptoms as ‘classic’ depression, but these are temporary and lift as the season changes.
Shorter days, combined with wetter and colder weather, can cause our mood to drop. We’re also facing additional challenges this year – COVID is still here, and we’re dealing with the rising cost of living – and this could well have an impact on our frame of mind.
“SAD is also linked to seasonal chemical changes in our bodies,” explains Alexandra Hopkins, Lead Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner at ieso. “These include increased production of melatonin, which can increase sleepiness, and reduced production of serotonin, which affects mood, sleep and appetite. The lack of natural light is thought to influence these changes, and it can also disrupt our internal clock, throwing us off-kilter.”
The way people experience SAD is very individual. Common signs and symptoms include persistent low mood, loss of pleasure in doing things, irritability, lack of energy, fatigue, difficulties with sleeping, changes in appetite and negative thoughts.
SAD can lead to a change in behaviour, with people becoming less motivated to get out and do things. They might also withdraw from friends, and spend less time on self-care. If you stay at home, watch more TV, sleep more and eat more you’re likely to feel more sluggish and demotivated as a result – and your mood will drop. So you’ll feel less interested in doing things…you get the idea! This can easily become a vicious cycle.
The good news is we can protect our wellbeing by investing some time in building our resilience in advance of the winter months.
It’s important to get as much natural light during the day as possible – even a 15 minute walk at lunchtime can give you a boost.
Schedule activities to make the most of the daylight – whether it’s walking the dog, exercising, or spending time with the family. “It’s also a good idea to open blinds and curtains at home and the workplace to allow light in, and try to sit near windows,” suggests Alexandra Hopkins.
If you’re reluctant to go out during dark evenings, for example, ask yourself why. It’s actually a very natural evolutionary response – humans are not nocturnal animals! What would happen if you didn’t listen to that voice, and went out anyway? Would you enjoy that yoga class or dinner with friends? Put it to the test – go out, then examine how you feel when you return home. Many people feel buoyed up, and glad they pushed themselves.
Challenging your predictions of winter might also help. Capture the negative thoughts you have – for example, “The next three months are going to be miserable. I won’t be able to cope with the gloom. Nothing good happens in winter!” Think back over previous winters – perhaps leaving out 2020! – and ask yourself whether there were things you enjoyed. Perhaps a sparkling snowy day, a trip away, a party or family occasion, Sunday lunches in the pub. When you look back, were things as bad as you expected? If there were some rotten times, how did you cope, and help yourself to get through it? What could you try this year?
“There’s a technique called Behavioural Activation that helps to break the cycle of SAD by increasing our engagement in valued activities, increasing the sense of pleasure and achievement we get from life,” says Alexandra Hopkins. “In the short term we may feel tired – but we’ll quickly gain greater energy, more motivation and improved mood.”
Start by writing a diary of everything you do in a week. Are there any gaps when you’re not doing anything? Are there times you’re juggling too much stuff, and can you delegate any of it?
Next, identify the activities you’ve been neglecting and would like to bring back into your days, and activities you’ve never done but want to start. These might include a mix of relaxation, socialisation, exercise, hobbies or learning something new. Schedule them into the chunks of available time you’ve identified or freed up in your diary; there’s no need to fill all the space!
It’s easy to procrastinate – but stick to the activity diary as best you can. The five-minute rule is a no pressure way of getting started: tell yourself you only have to do the activity for five minutes, and if you hate it you’ll stop. Setting clear goals and visualising the outcome of the activity can also be motivating.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends talking treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for SAD, and the mental and emotional problems that it might exacerbate, such as stress, anxiety and depression.
CBT treats SAD with techniques and coping tools tailored to address an individual’s specific symptoms. If you’re feeling particularly low or anxious about winter, coming to ieso for online CBT could help you approach the season more positively.
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