Christmas is a joyous time for most. Gift giving & festivities form the backbone of the closing months of the year, keeping most people riding a bright and cheery wave through the dark, cold & damp months.
Unfortunately, there are two sides to every coin (even chocolate ones) and for around 1 in 20 people, Seasonal Affective Disorder – aptly named SAD – can make the winter months a difficult slog. For a long time, this condition wasn’t taken too seriously and was just brushed under the rug as people being a little grumpy or hit with a case of the blues. In the more recent years, a light has been shone on SAD, revealing some potential causes and treatments to combat the low moods which swing by at this time of year.
The most obvious links to bring on this seasonal depression are based around a deficiency of melatonin which is brought on by a lack of natural light exposure. Melatonin helps regulate natural restful sleep and a lack of this can cause a domino effect and bring on other side effects such as:
- Bad eating habits (comfort eating)
- Low motivation
- Substance misuse
Light Therapy is recommended as a treatment for SAD by Lisa Jury, a ‘BrainWorking Recursive Therapy’ psychotherapist (What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and what are the main causes? – YorkshireLive (examinerlive.co.uk)). This treatment has been observed as effective but it isn’t quite as simple as sitting next to your lamp in the front room. There are artificial light sources which can help, but these can be expensive and aren’t a feasible option for everyone.
The most accessible way to initially address a noticeable dip in your mood would be quite simply to go out for a and get some exposure to fresh air and nature. The obvious issue is that this can be difficult to maintain due to working hours taking up the majority, if not all, of the daylight hours.
However, a key thing to keep in mind is to power through a rainy weekend. If the weather looks dreary outside & you think you’d rather stay in, try to force yourself out f your comfort zone. As well as getting a kick of endorphins from the exercise, keeping up this form of activity in unpleasant conditions will begin to engrain a positive association with forcing yourself through difficult conditions. This meditative approach to discomfort is one of the things that keeps committed health-fanatics going through workout sessions or diet plans when a difficult day comes along and the temptation to stay in and order a pizza comes knocking. This process can be slow but the dividends it pays will be enormous the longer you keep it up.
Keeping up a healthy diet is just a general life recommendation, but it can be another easy way to get the ball rolling on combatting SAD. Making sure your body gets the correct vitamins is going to help improve your mood day-to-day by regulating your internal chemistry through using the correct fuel for what you need. As referenced in an article from The University of Bristol (Food and drug addictions: Similarities and differences – PubMed (nih.gov)), sweet snacks and comfort eating are a real pitfall & the behavioural patterns shown by this are closely linked to substance misuse. It’s definitely worth stating that the health impacts are leagues apart, but the psychology behind the behaviour is very similar.
Simply put, it’s chasing instant gratification. Eating something which tastes nice to you will give you a kick of the endorphins you need to keep up a good mood. However, the adverse health impacts on this will mean the chosen behaviour you display will offer diminishing returns over time.
Get some rest
Restful sleep is definitely overlooked but is also very tricky to implement as it will rely heavily on the aforementioned guidance on diet and exercise. It is definitely a case of you get what you give though and can be the most noticeably impactful change which you’ll notice immediate positive feedback on. Waking up feeling well rested will help make the rest of the day a lot easier to tackle if you find yourself in a rut and can offer a strong first step into implementing other things to aid that initial burst of positive momentum.
Medisafe recommends using a sleep tracker to help you keep on top of monitoring your sleep behaviour – “To help uncover some of the elements that may be contributing to poor sleep, a sleep tracker may be beneficial. Sleep tracking can also help to support a conversation with a physician about the factors that may be preventing a good night’s rest and leading to more serious health conditions. Luckily, the ability to track sleep is easier than ever before with an abundance of digital health tools.” This in mind, it could be worth starting a sleep journal to try and identify any patterns which may be the root of poor sleep habits. As well as keeping records of your sleep quality and quantity, it may prove helpful to also note things you did before bed, things you did that day & any food you consume prior to sleeping.
Say no to your phone
Medisafe also suggests “Calming activities before bed can also help to promote better sleep.” These calming activities are quite self-explanatory but some additional pointers could be avoiding screen time up to 2 hours before settling down (a daunting prospect). This is explained by the Sleep Foundation who say: “Blue light suppresses the body’s release of melatonin 8, a hormone that makes us feel drowsy. While this may be helpful during the day, it becomes unhelpful at night when we’re trying to sleep. Being exposed to blue light in the evening can trick our brain into thinking it’s still daytime, disrupting circadian rhythms and leaving us feeling alert instead of tired.”
In the digital world we live in, this can be a frighteningly difficult habit to eliminate, especially as we’re often glued to our screens in down time as a form of escapism – which can be amplified by SAD. A traditional substitute would be to swap out your phone for a book for those final few hours before going to bed. You could even remove the habit of checking your phone for the time by going old school and looking at a clock wall clock. Another even more archaic form of evening entertainment could be picking up a new screen-free hobby, like:
- Jigsaw puzzles. These may seem primitive but they are actually quite fun. You can add to the authentic effect by doing it by candlelight.
- Crossword puzzles. This can really challenge you by seeing if you can still spell a word like “grandiose” without the aid of autocorrect.
- Faberge Egg. This is niche & probably not for everyone. I have no idea how they’re made but they look like they’d take a while so it could pass on an evening or two.
- Goat yoga. If you have a goat and can also do yoga then you’re probably already doing this.
- Draw a picture. You could draw a picture of what you’d rather be watching on TV if you’re struggling.
In all seriousness though, maintaining a solid sleep schedule can be a useful starting point for reducing the effects of SAD & other physical ailments – Why lack of sleep is bad for your health – NHS (www.nhs.uk).
Talk about it
If you think you are suffering from SAD then be vocal about it. In general, being open about your health in both work and social environments can help reduce the amount of stress you could be adding to your daily life. If you feel comfortable to do so, approaching a manager or colleague to explain why you may be struggling to concentrate could help to in avoiding added stress to a workday.
All in all, if you are struggling with SAD or any condition, the recommended course would be to reach out to someone – whether it be to get more support from work, family or a medical professional. The resources which are available are numerous & most employers will respect and offer support where available, in accordance with the Equality Act. More information can be found here – Stress at work – Mental health conditions, work and the workplace – HSE
Below are some useful links relating to SAD from the NHS:
Symptoms – Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – NHS (www.nhs.uk)
Treatment – Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – NHS (www.nhs.uk)