Seasonal Affective Disorder: How To Navigate ‘Winter Depression’


Every year, as autumn slowly transitions into winter, I feel a sense of dread creeping in. With hot chocolate, cosy jumpers and major holidays to enjoy, this time of year can be exciting for many. But for some people, low temperatures often come packaged with low moods, motivation and energy levels. If you can relate to this, you might be one of the two million people in the UK affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

So what exactly is seasonal affective disorder, and how can we cope with it?

Symptoms of SAD:

According to the NHS website, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is “a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern”. Although people can experience SAD symptoms during the summer months, most experience it during the winter. This is reflected in Google searches for ‘seasonal affective disorder’, which typically begin to spike around late September/October (and peak in November). Hence, SAD is sometimes known as ‘winter depression.’

SAD shares many symptoms of depression, including persistent low mood, lethargy, feelings of despair, and the loss of pleasure/interest in certain activities. More specific to winter SAD are symptoms like oversleeping, overeating and having low energy. It can also worsen existing mental health conditions; my year-round depression tends to feel somewhat more severe during this time of year.

Similar to clinical depression, SAD has no single cause. A leading theory links it to changes in our exposure to sunlight. Reduced levels of sunlight disrupt the functioning of a part of your brain called the hypothalamus. In turn, this affects your body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and causes you to produce more melatonin (a hormone that makes you sleepy) and less serotonin (which is associated with depression).

Also, winter can be a challenging time for many. It can come with heightened issues in areas such as finances, housing and relationships. For instance, this Christmas will be my first since the end of a long-term relationship. Given that this is a time I associate with loved ones, I expect this year will feel a bit lonelier.

Self-care for SAD:

Self-care is especially important for mood disorders like SAD. If you don’t yet have any go-to self-care practices, experiment with different soothing activities. Journalling or talking to a friend are useful ways to express and process your thoughts and feelings. I combine journalling with listing things that I’m grateful for, which helps me to feel more optimistic.

There are also a few practices you can use to deal with SAD-specific symptoms. For instance, SAD can make getting out of bed a struggle. One tip to make this easier is to gradually set your alarm earlier, allowing your body’s internal clock to adjust. That way, the dark winter mornings won’t be so disorientating.

Additionally, health and wellbeing expert Stephanie Taylor (StressNoMore) suggests buying a wake-up light to simulate the perfect morning light intensity.

Each day, make the most of the few hours of sunlight you get. Allow as much natural light as possible into your home and work environments. If there isn’t much access to natural light, brighten up your space using artificial lights, and try to go outside (even just for a few minutes).

Establishing routines and positive habits are also reliable coping mechanisms. Get your energy flowing early on by doing a light activity (nothing too overwhelming). For instance, I aim to make my bed each morning. Completing this small task makes me feel more accomplished and capable of facing the day.

If you’ve got the time and resources for it, taking a short trip can help to reduce stress and break up the monotony of winter.

Diet and Exercise:

There’s a strong link between mental and physical health, so be sure to look after your body too. When it’s cold and gloomy, it feels tempting to stay put in your house all day. But exercise can significantly improve your mood and energy levels. Of course, you might not always have the energy for strenuous exercise. Just regularly moving your body in some capacity is a great starting point to feeling better.

I alternate between walking and yoga. Although winter makes it harder to motivate myself to go out for walks, the natural light and fresh air always make me feel better. Yoga is great for practising mindfulness and is a similarly gentle form of exercise that anyone can get into. And, you don’t have to leave your house to do it. I recommend trying Yoga with Adriene‘s YouTube videos for soothing practices.

When it comes to eating, it’s better to focus on what you can add to your diet, rather than what to take away. According to Stephanie Taylor, adding complex carbohydrates (e.g. wheat, oats) and foods containing tryptophan and Omega-3 (e.g. pineapples, nuts and fish) can help boost your serotonin levels.

I also take Vitamin D supplements during autumn and winter, since there isn’t enough sunlight for the body to make Vitamin D on its own. Vitamin D helps to keep your muscles, bones and teeth healthy.

Professional Treatments for SAD:

As recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), you should have access to the same treatments for SAD as for other types of depression. Therapy and/or medication are the main treatment options.

Reaching out for support can feel daunting. Before seeking professional help, I was sceptical it would improve anything and felt determined to handle my depression alone. It was only when I reached a low point that I realised I needed treatment.

So if you think you might have SAD, don’t wait for your symptoms to get worse. Contact your GP or a professional mental health services provider. They can help you explore the options and services available and won’t pressure you into a treatment you aren’t comfortable with. I’ve had positive experiences with both talking therapy and antidepressants. Take the time to figure out what works best for you.

Although it’s not available on the NHS, some people with SAD find that ‘light therapy’ treatments improve their symptoms. Light therapy involves sitting by a lightbox (a device that gives off strong white or blue light) for small periods. If you are interested in light therapy, read the NHS’s advice and consider speaking to your GP first. 

Closing thoughts:

Whether or not you experience SAD, it’s important to remember that winter can be a tough time for anyone. Remember to check in with and be kind to both yourself and the people in your life.

Words by Gemma Laws.

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