With less daylight, longer nights and colder weather, it’s normal to feel down during the winter months, especially after the festive season is over. In fact, 2 million people in the UK suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which is a mental health condition that comes and goes with the winter months.
Do I have SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression which can cause severe symptoms and have serious impact on your day-to-day life. It is different from other types of depression because it occurs in seasonal patterns, usually during the autumn and winter months. Here are some of the common symptoms of SAD:
- Continuous low mood
- Lack of interest in everyday activities
- Feelings of low self-esteem
- Stress and anxiety
- Reduces sex drive
- Less sociable
- Difficulty to concentrate
- Feeling lethargic
SAD is not easy to diagnose. For some people, SAD can significantly affect their life while for others, it can be just a bit irritating. If you have similar symptoms as the ones described above, you should contact your GP who will be able to carry out an assessment.
But milder symptoms and feeling down rather than depressed during the winter months doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to make you feel better. Here are some things anyone can do to look after their mental health this winter.
Make the most of natural daylight
The main cause of the “winter blues” is believed to be the reduced exposure to natural sunlight which may make your body produce more melatonin than normal, making you feel sleepier. A lack of sunlight could also be linked to a reduced production of serotonin which can lead to feelings of depression.
Therefore, going outside when possible to spend time in natural sunlight can improve your mood because once the sunlight reaches the retina, it triggers the release of serotonin. It also means that melatonin is not produced in the brain since it’s not dark, therefore you may feel more alert.
Brighten up your home
When you’re indoors, try to make your home or work environment bright and airy during the day to help you boost your mood. Here are some tips to do this:
- Open up your curtains.
- Sit near windows.
- Keep windows clean because dirty windows can block out portions of sunlight.
- Use lamps and mirrors.
- Even small interior décor elements such as bright-coloured cushions may deliver subtle mood-boosting effects.
Some people with SAD use light therapy to help them improve their mood. Light therapy is when you sit by a special light called a light box which simulates natural sunlight by producing a very bright light. Light therapy could be suitable for most people, but you should talk to your GP before buying a light box.
Keep a good sleeping routine
The reduced exposure to sunlight in the winter months might also impact your circadian rhythm (your body’s internal clock). Your body uses the sunlight as a cue to time important body functions, but in winter this system can be disrupted.
With the sun rising later in the morning and setting earlier in the evening, you might feel tempted to sleep more. However, we don’t actually need more sleep in winter as opposed to summer so keeping a regular sleep schedule is important in helping you sleep better. Try going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, including on weekends and holidays. This will help you maintain a healthy circadian rhythm and feel less tired and less stressed during the day.
Get active by doing something you enjoy
Exercising doesn’t only keep you fit and healthy, it has also been proven to be a powerful tool in protecting your mental health. No wonder it’s often prescribed by doctors as a treatment for people with mild and moderate depression. Being regularly active can help you during the day because it gives you more energy and releases cortisol to help you manage stress, and it can also help you sleep better during the night.
Any type of exercise can help as long as it’s suitable for you, but doing something you enjoy might be even better for your mental health.
Avoid emotional eating
When feeling down, you might turn to eating comfort foods such as fast food and sweets to help you feel better. This is called emotional eating and it can create a false feeling of temporary happiness. But eating comfort food in excess can lead to weight gain and can make you feel guilty or ashamed which in the long run can worsen your mental health.
Food can also affect your mood if you don’t get the necessary nutrients in your body. For example, not getting enough iron can make you feel weak and tired, and a lack of vitamin B complex can lead to feelings of depression and irritability.
A balanced diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods and with some protein including oily fish can help you get the nutrients you need for improving your mood and mental health.
Connect with others
According to the Mental Health Foundation, people who have healthy relationships with others such as family, friends and their community, are happier and have fewer mental health problems. Connecting with others can provide emotional support and build a sense of belonging and self-worth. Here are some tips to help you build stringer relationships:
- Arrange time to eat together with your family.
- Get back in touch with an old friend.
- Switch off the TV to talk or play a game with your children, family or friends.
- Join a volunteering group.
With the risks of Covid-19 still around, socialising face-to-face might not always be easy. But by making the most of the available technology, you can stay in touch with friends and family even when you can’t meet each other.
It’s important to know that if you feel like you can’t cope alone, there are ways to get help with your mental health. Samaritans and Mental Health Innovations both run free, confidential mental health services including helpline, email or text service and self-help apps.
For urgent mental health help, find and call your local 24-hours NHS helpline.
Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for informational purposes only and does not substitute the medical advice from a healthcare professional.