Last winter was perhaps one of the longest I can remember in a long time. It felt as if it started at the end of October and persisted on into March this year. Many of my clients spoke about feeling down throughout the winter months and being fed up with the darkness and the biting cold. I know a few winter and cold lovers, but they are in the minority! Once the final colours of autumn have faded, some people start to struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder(SAD).
It is suggested that between about 3 and 6 % of the UK population experience SAD. When the seasons begin to change and the days become shorter, some people may start to feel depression-like symptoms: low energy, lack of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, irritability, craving carbohydrates and persistent low mood. Although there appear to be no definitive causes of SAD, some people seem to be more vulnerable than others and it is thought that certain body chemicals may play a part.
The reduced hours of sunlight impact our brain’s production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep, wakefulness and our body clock. Basically as it gets dark, we produce more melatonin, become increasingly tired and eventually fall asleep. On the flip side, as it gets lighter in the morning our melatonin levels drop and we feel more awake. The change in melatonin levels may impact mood and make us feel low.
Reduced sunlight can also reduce the level of serotonin in our bodies. This chemical helps regulate our mood, wellbeing and happiness. Lower serotonin levels may be linked to depression which is why SSRI may be prescribed to individuals experiencing depression. Again this is something that should be discussed with a GP so an informed decision can be made about taking this medication.
There are other ways to help though and these include light therapy, exercise and a healthy diet and talking therapy (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
Light Therapy: There are many scientifically tested and certified light therapy boxes on the market but I have never used one myself. The theory is that if we ‘top up’ the daylight we have lost due to fewer hours of sun it will help reduce melatonin and make us less susceptible to low mood. The light produced by these lamps and boxes imitates natural daylight and so standing by a household lamp won’t provide the same benefits.
CBT: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help by looking at unhelpful behaviours (such as avoidance, over-sleeping, irritability) that are directly impacting your mood. Together with a therapist, you can start to build a plan to help reduce these behaviours and increase more positive ones. Yes, this can be challenging but it’s very worthwhile. We CBT therapists refer to this intervention as Behavioural Activation.
One top tip would be to get outside during the daytime as much as you can. This might be literally 10 minutes on a work break. If there is a patch of sunlight, stand in it…imagine that you are absorbing it like a sponge.
Please don’t suffer in silence with the symptoms of depression.