As the Christmas holiday is approaching, many consider it a magical and charming time for adults and children alike. However, it’s the least wonderful time of the year for sunlight.
Winter blues or seasonal affective disorder?
As many as one in five Americans report “winter blues” beginning around this time of year, making you feel more cranky and lethargic. For about one in twenty Americans, symptoms increase to a seasonal affective disorder (use the mnemonic word SAD to remember).
It has been estimated that 10 to 15 per cent of Britons also struggle through Autumn and winter and suffer many of those symptoms, but are not clinically diagnosed as having depression.
A seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is caused by prolonged exposure to darkness and cold temperatures, and those shifts disrupt our neuroendocrine systems, particularly the hormones that regulate moods.
Traditionally, in the post-Agricultural era, human societies harvested crops in late summer and preserved foods in the fall or Autumn, depending on which side of the pond you lived.
Then pseudo-hibernation, staying comfortable and warm indoors with family in the winter. That annual cycle of birth, growth, harvesting and death is part of why so many societies have holidays relating to death, for example, in Día de Muertos, this time of year is the opportunity to remember loved ones who have died and honour their memory.
Sadly, for most current employment routes, less sunlight doesn’t typically equate to fewer working hours. Psychologists say that there is generally a sliding scale of seasonal sadness. At the lowest level, it makes us overeat, oversleep, and be grumpy.
Winter blues typically involve brief, low-level symptoms that don’t impact your day-to-day life. You might occasionally feel melancholic or tired, but those symptoms resolve quickly, if symptoms interfere with your ability to be productive and enjoy life during this stretch, seek help.
In contrast, you maintain typical mental health throughout most of the year but exhibit depressive symptoms simultaneously each year, most commonly in winter, thus only pointing towards A seasonal affective disorder.
Symptoms of a seasonal affective disorder include depression, listlessness, loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy, increased appetite (particularly craving carbohydrates and gaining weight), hopelessness or guilt, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, fatigue, excessive sleep and decreased sociality.
A point of curiosity, a high-sugar diet is associated with higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders and a tentative link to clinical depression. In disparity, sleeping well can work wonders in helping to boost our moods.
However, if these symptoms rise to a level where you feel you can’t control them with home remedies, or they disrupt your life to the point where you can’t function, it’s time to see a medical professional. You may need therapy, medication or other alternatives to help control your symptoms.
Strategies for seasonal affective disorder
Even if you know why it’s happening, experiencing a seasonal affective disorder is no walk in the park, even though it is increasingly dark at this hour.
Here are some ideas and strategies for managing symptoms and keeping your mental health on track.
Try light therapy
Seasonal affective disorder lamps are a safe and effective treatment, though you should check with your doctor first if you have bipolar disorder or an eye condition.
You’ll get optimal results by using them for about 30 minutes within the first hour of waking up.
If you don’t want to buy one, take advantage of natural sunlight by planning to go outside for a walk during the daytime.
Brighten up your space
Go through your home and workspace and see if there are ways you could let in more of the season’s limited natural light.
Can you move your desk or kitchen table to a sunnier spot?
Move sunlight-blocking furniture out of the windows.
Trade heavy curtains for sheer ones?
“We are no different from flowers and plants,” said Erin Raftery Ryan from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “If we don’t get enough vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, we will often wilt too.”
A 2014 trial published in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences found that more than three-quarters of patients who went to their GP with fatigue lacked vitamin D, and by correcting the deficiency had improved their energy levels.
Create a routine
Part of why our internal clocks are so disrupted when the clock on the wall changes in winter is because it can force us out of our habits. You might have got accustomed to after-work walks or a late afternoon coffee.
Now, it’s pitch black outside when you get up from your desk at the end of the day. Make a new enjoyable routine for your evenings to help your brain settle into the new season.
Routines give you something to look forward to and tell your brain what to expect, and they reassure your subconscious that everything’s on track.
Consider adding gentle stretches near the window to your morning routine, or create a playlist that you turn on when your workday ends.
Exercise can be a boon to mental health. Avoid maxing your heart rate or committing to intense sweat sessions. Gentle movement can be as beneficial to your brain as a more intense activity.
Whether it’s yoga, whether it’s walking, whether it’s stretching — Any movement, in general, will help to get in the body and start to open up the parts of us that may start to feel stagnant, said Allison Simon, a yoga and meditation instructor.
It’s less about carving winter abdominals, achieving the perfect six-pack and more about keeping that energy moving through the body, but supporting our blood flow.
Practice meditation and gratitude
Along with the season of death and figuring out how to change your car’s clock, it’s a time of appreciation. Gratitude is the way of looking at life from a positive point of view.
When you practice gratitude, it helps you balance both positives and negatives in life. So, the setbacks don’t make you too sad. Being compassionate towards others gives you perspective to look at those less fortunate than you.
Dr Craig Hassed, at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, says that punctuating your day with short bouts of mindfulness is a highly effective way to relieve stress and anxiety.
Make a phone call that matters
Spending more time with friends and family. People are more willing to get together in person now than they might have been in the last two years.
Covid uncertainty still prevails; there may seem to be reasons aplenty for mounting despair. For many, anxiety levels are already at an all-time high, the pandemic having upended every aspect of ordinary life. You can gather and still be COVID-conscious.
If you’re far from family and friends, a Zoom party is still an option, offering similar mental health benefits.
Commit to a regular phone call with a good friend.
Look on the bright side of life
Apart from singing, the Monty Python heart song lyric may be considered valid now, with the Dutch research study about moods at different points in the year.
They found that it was only among people already high in neuroticism — the tendency to experience negative emotions in response to stressors — that the end of summer sun had a correspondingly bleak effect on their mood.
The long winter nights make us appreciably more depressed, as long as we maintain a sunny disposition and look on the bright side of life.
Punit Shah, at the University of Bath, who was not involved in the study, expressed that individuals who are neurotic or those with anxiety are particularly susceptible to external factors influencing their mental health.