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Winter Blues: Why So Sad?

Lily Abel explains seasonal affective disorder and offers some coping strategies to help combat its effects

Winter. The sun emanates a weak glow for seemingly a couple of hours a day and then dullness engulfs the remainder. This season can be a tough time for most people; it is often cold, dark and dreary, really dampening spirits. Although the season does hold many positive 

attributes, such as snuggling up under fluffy blankets with hot chocolate or listening to the crackling fire, for many the change brings on struggles to do even the simplest of tasks like   getting out of bed or leaving the house.

Lethargy, down-moods and a general feeling of a lack of motivation and inspiration can be some key symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which affects one in three people in the UK. Also known as ‘winter depression’ and recognised by the NHS, the disorder can affect people to differing degrees with some suffering severe depressive tendencies to others just feeling a little lower than usual. 

SAD is believed to be caused by a lack of sunlight, which might stop the part of the brain called the hypothalamus from working properly having some consequential effects. The production of melatonin, which is the hormone associated with sleep, may increase and in turn serotonin, a hormone that affects your mood and appetite, often decreases, and  consequently you may experience decreased energy levels, cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods and fatigue.

It is suggested that some may be more vulnerable to symptoms of SAD due to their genetic 

makeup, however the predominant cause is due to the lack of sunlight and therefore a decrease in the amount of Vitamin D that is absorbed.

People often neglect the importance of Vitamin D and in the summer months we often take it for granted, however it is an essential vitamin we need for our overall health and wellbeing. Found principally through exposure to sunlight, Vitamin D used to be readily available in the soil and therefore in fresh vegetables. Commercial farming, with its use of pesticides and over working of the land has meant we can no longer get a sufficient amount from purely eating vegetables and have to turn to other alternatives. Aiding calcium intake, bone growth and in turn cell growth, this vitamin is key and unfortunately in the winter months is hard to come by.

It is important to acknowledge the difference between the regular winter blues that come with the changing seasons and the more intense symptoms of SAD. Winter blues can make you feel a little lethargic and perhaps lacking in your normal energy, however people dealing with SAD undergo severe fatigue to the point where it is hard to leave their bed, let alone the house.

You may find it difficult to communicate with people and relationships become strained, or perhaps your moods reach some intense lows that are debilitating. If this is you it is okay, and there are plenty of options to help you deal with your symptoms and create a more positive mind set.

First of all, if you are struggling with these seemingly crippling symptoms of depression, make sure you speak to your GP who will offer professional guidance on what you should do and whether it is SAD or perhaps something else.

Extreme fatigue can be caused by anaemia (iron deficiency), therefore it is important to have a blood test to check for this. GPs may suggest anti-depressants as a means of dealing with your mental health as it is often a chemical imbalance that cannot always be resolved by methods such as self-care. This is of course perfectly acceptable and although many try to avoid medication and often feel guilty because of it, it is important to accept it as a form of healing, something that should not be judged or looked down upon, but respected and accepted. 

Alternatively, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may be suggested as useful, being a method that incorporates talking as a means to alter your mindset so you are better able to deal with your feelings. 

It is also important to note here that SAD is a mental health disorder, therefore the charity Mind offer guidance and counselling. You can search online at www.mind.org.uk, which provides information and support for a range of mental health issues, including specifically SAD, as well as a phone number so you can talk to someone in confidence about your struggles.

These two options are some of the best if you are at your lowest, however there are some other means of helping with your low moods that you can implement into your day-to-day life. The first of these is using light boxes, which act as a form of light therapy and can be purchased online and are easily accessible. These lights emit safe UV rays and create the effect of daylight within your room, boosting your serotonin levels which you would normally get from the sun.

These can come in natural daylight, fluorescent tubes or LEDs, and the amount of time you need to use them for depends on the amount of lux (units to measure light intensity) that is emitted. If you purchase one that emits 10 000 lux, thirty minutes to an hour is the most adequate amount of time to use it for. You can also purchase a dawn simulator clock that mimics a sunrise, therefore steadily increasing the amount of seemingly natural light in

your room, encouraging you to wake up in a lighter environment. This option is catered to deal with the body’s circadian rhythm or the natural body clock which uses the sunrise as a time to wake and the sunset as a time to sleep. Caution must be taken when choosing which ones to buy, so make sure you always look out for one with an approved CE mark.

Method number two, and a bit of a trend at the moment, is mindfulness. We are currently seeing a rise in the popularity of self-care, and health and wellbeing, things which are key to creating a more positive mindset. When you are feeling particularly low and struggling to do anything, it is important to be mindful of your situation.

Make sure you take some time out to have a luxury bubble bath, make your favourite meal and really focus on how you are creating it. Begin a gratitude journal where you note down three things every day that you are grateful for, rather than the things you are perhaps currently struggling with. Using this as a means to divert your mindset to a more positive one can help throughout the dreary seasons.

Another tip, despite this maybe being the last thing you would think you want to do when it’s cold and dark out, is exercising. Getting your body moving can be a massive help in relieving your negative moods and, as counterintuitive as it sounds, increasing your energy.

If you are a gym member, join a class and pick one you normally like; it could be yoga or something more intense like circuits. Alternatively, go for a walk outside, as although it may be cold, fresh air is invigorating and can help create some headspace. Perhaps listen to your favourite music that makes you happy, or an interesting podcast that you can get lost in. Even if you just stick on some music and have a boogie in your house that puts a grin on your face is better than nothing. I promise you will feel better after getting your body moving and endorphins flowing.

My final suggestion for combatting the effects of SAD is to socialise. Similar to exercise, this may seem like something you would rather avoid when all you want to do is snuggle down and not leave the comfort of your bed. But in seeing your friends and family, whether they 

come and visit you for a chilled evening in, or go for a day trip somewhere, this act of seeing and talking to other human beings can really help you release some stress and negative energy. It may give you a chance to unload what you are feeling and in turn feel more relieved that someone knows and is there to understand and support you. Otherwise, conversation may flow about other topics and take your mind off things. 

Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder can be an intense period for your mental health, but it is important to remember that it won’t last forever and when you begin to see the delicate snow drops and fragile crocus heads emerging from the damp ground, spring and summer are on their way and with them, plenty of sunshine and colour which will lift your spirits. Remember not to be afraid to seek help and guidance if you are struggling, as previously mentioned, there are plenty of options to turn to! 


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