The dark winter months can feel long and lonely. For some people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) however, they can be especially difficult to cope with. With the reintroduction of lockdown this new year, getting outdoors may seem less appealing than ever. Yet, spending time outdoors and increasing our exposure to sunlight is precisely what we must strive to do to help us cope and stay healthy during the winter months.
What Is Sad?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression which has a seasonal pattern. It is most severe during the winter months, particularly in the period between December to February and for this reason is sometimes referred to as the “winter depression”. Symptoms can begin in the autumn, as daylight hours begin to decrease, and tend to improve during the spring months as the days get longer again. However, some people do suffer from SAD during other times of the year as well.
As with other forms of depression, SAD is most typically characterised by a persistent low mood and a lack of interest in life or daily activities. Those suffering from SAD may also be more irritable, feel anxious and stressed. Additionally, sufferers may also feel more lethargic and find that they are sleeping more than they would do normally. Some people also find themselves craving carbohydrates and eating more, which can lead to weight gain.
What Causes Sad?
It’s not fully understood what causes SAD. However, it’s believed to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of winter. Sunlight is important for our bodies and can have an impact on some of the hormones and chemicals in the brain. There is some suggestion that SAD is caused when the hypothalamus (which is a part of the brain responsible for controlling mood, appetite and sleep) stops working correctly.
As a result of this, the body may begin producing higher levels of the hormone melatonin, which can lead to people feeling sleepier than normal. Similarly, lack of sunlight can also affect serotonin production. Serotonin is the hormone linked to mood, sleep and appetite. Lower levels of serotonin can lead to increased feelings of depression. Finally, reduced exposure to sunlight can negatively impact upon the body’s circadian rhythm or body clock.
Coping With SAD
Fortunately, there are a range of treatments which can be used to help people cope with the symptoms of SAD. In more extreme cases or when individuals feel they are unable to cope, it’s always advisable that they seek medical help and support from their GP. GPs can recommend the most suitable treatment programme for each person, which may include talking therapies (such as cognitive behaviour therapy or counselling) or even antidepressant medicines, for more extreme cases.
However, there are also a number of treatments and strategies which you can implement in your daily life which have been found to offer relief to most sufferers. Even better, these are healthy strategies which can help improve the mood and wellbeing of all individuals, not just those suffering from SAD.
1. Increase your exposure to sunlight
Despite the cold winter months and the lack of sunlight, it’s important to motivate yourself to go outside every day and get a little natural light. Even if you just spend 10 minutes outdoors, this can significantly impact on your mood and wellbeing. Try to get as much exposure to natural sunlight as you can every day. It will help you to feel refreshed, more alert, energised and positive.
2. Go for a walk outside
Whether you go alone or with your family, try to go for a walk outdoors. If you have a local nature reserve nearby, aim to go for a walk there. Taking a walk in a green space has been shown to improve mood and reduce the feelings of anxiety and stress. It doesn’t need to be a long walk, but getting into the habit of doing this every day will prove highly beneficial.
3. Exercise outdoors
Exercising outdoors is a great way to stay healthy and increase your exposure to sunlight at the same time. Perhaps you’ve taken up a new exercise regime this new year? Why not have a go at doing it outdoors? Consider going for a run or start cycling. You can do this with your family too if you need the extra motivation and it can be a fun way to spend more time together.
4. Increase Natural Light Indoors
Avoid spending your time indoors in dark or dimly-lit rooms. Instead, make sure that you open the curtains and let in as much natural light as possible. You can also try using some well-placed mirrors to help increase light in darker spaces within your home. Try to open the windows occasionally to increase ventilation and provide some fresh air to make you feel more energised.
5. Use A Light Box
Many SAD sufferers have found that using a light box to simulate exposure to sunlight can help to decrease the symptoms of SAD. The special lamp increases blue light, but importantly does not contain harmful UV rays, so it can be used safely. Just a few minutes of exposure a day can provide relief.
Whether you are suffering from the symptoms of SAD, or you are finding the darker winter months harder to cope with, especially with the renewed lockdown restrictions, we invite you to join us in going outside this week.
Make a commitment to go outside every day, whatever the weather. It doesn’t have to be for a long time – a mere 10 minutes can be enough to begin with. Perhaps you can make this a family event? If you have children, going out for a family walk can be a welcomed break from the pressures of home-schooling and will help to avoid cabin fever from setting in. If you can, go for a walk in a green space.
Alternatively, take your exercise outdoors. Whether you go for a run, a family cycle, mindful walking or even doing some somatic practice, yoga or martial arts in your garden or local park, give it a try.
If you need a bit more motivation, why not sign up for the spring season of 12 Walks to Wellbeing? You can start doing daily walks now to prepare and listen to the audio guides or movement inspirations for extra support and guidance.
Even in lockdown, we are still able to go outside for exercise. It’s perhaps more important than ever to take up this opportunity and ensure we can increase our exposure to sunlight. In so doing, we can ensure that we are looking after our whole health – physical, emotional and mental.