Once again, we find ourselves at that time of year where the nights seem endless, the skies are grey and the days roll by in a dark, dreary haze. Without the merriness and mulled wine of the festive season to distract us, the winter months can feel extremely bleak; even causing some of us to develop symptoms of depression. If you notice a significant dip in your mood as well as the temperature over the winter months, you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is also referred to as ‘SAD’ or ‘The Winter Blues’. Put simply, SAD refers to the onset of depression during the winter months. People can experience waves of this seasonal depression throughout winter and may struggle with it for years. The symptoms are very similar to depression, including a persistent mood, feelings of hopelessness and/or guilt, appetite and sleep changes and reduced energy.
It’s not just you who misses the sunshine - your brain and body do too!
You may be surprised to hear this, but sunlight plays a huge part in regulating our bodily processes - everything from our sleep to our appetite. It is believed that the longer nights, darker days and lack of sunlight during the winter are responsible for triggering seasonal depression, as these factors have a huge impact on our hormones and internal body clock (circadian rhythm). When our internal body clock is subjected to so much disruption, it can lead to symptoms of depression.
Hibernation mode: activated.
How do you think your body knows to feel sleepy at night? A structure in your brain called the hypothalamus (which is in charge of running our internal body clock) senses the lack of sunlight and triggers the production of a hormone called Melatonin.
Melatonin causes us to feel tired, making us want to go to sleep. Because there’s less sunlight during the winter, Melatonin is over-produced, therefore we feel sleepier. This lack of energy and motivation can cause us to neglect healthy habits and can snowball into feelings of depression.
Sunshine makes you happier - literally.
Natural sunlight stimulates the production of Vitamin D, which in turn triggers Serotonin to be produced. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a chemical substance used to communicate messages between nerve cells) that influences mood. It’s often referred to as the ‘Happy Hormone’ because higher levels of Serotonin are associated with better mood (and vice versa). As Serotonin production relies heavily on Vitamin D, and therefore sunlight, SAD is also believed to occur due to a decreased production of this happy hormone during the dark winter months.
Navigating a world ruled by depression is no easy feat. I’ve suffered with depression for most of my life, although I only really realised it in the spring of 2021 when a combination of personal and work stressors made it reach its peak. In a weird form of irony, hitting rock bottom was the best thing that ever happened for my depression. I suddenly became so sick of it. Sick of feeling sad, worthless and disgusting every single day. Sick of crying all the time for seemingly no reason. Sick of hating my life and pushing away everyone in it. I’d had enough.
Through talking therapy, antidepressants and making some pretty huge life changes (like finally quitting my stressful job!) I’ve managed to drastically improve my mood and ease my depression. Honestly, I feel like a new woman! Instead of crying every day because of how awful I feel inside, I now save my tears for heartwarming TV adverts or literally any film involving a pet dying (you know the one). It took plenty of time, energy and dedication for today’s Emily to peel away years’ worth of depression layers and climb out from that black hole depression had forced her in to. But now, she’s here - and hopefully to stay.
So, as someone who already struggles with depression, I’ve had to learn to dedicate a little extra time to my well being during the winter months in order to avoid my mood deteriorating. Here are my top tips for beating the winter blues:
Go for a daily walk
Preferably two if you can - one in the morning, one in the evening. I know, I know; who on Earth wants to go outside in the freezing cold and pouring rain? Well…nobody, that’s true. But, if you really want to avoid those winter blues, getting some fresh air in your lungs and sunshine on your face works wonders. Wrap up warm, pile on the layers and lace up those muddy boots - whatever you do, just get outside! Not only will the sunshine help to stimulate Serotonin, regulate your circadian rhythm and ward off excessive Melatonin production, but it’s also a great form of exercise and gets you connected to nature - both of which are scientifically proven to boost your mood and prevent depression!
Some great ways to work a walk into your day:
Got parcels to post? Walk to your nearest postbox!
Listen to your favourite podcast, music, radio show or audio-book on-the-move
Take your morning tea or coffee to-go
Phone a friend or family member (perhaps organise a walking catch-up?)
Got meetings all day? Why not step away from the screen and dial-in to one from your phone (your colleagues will be jealous, trust me)
Go for a quick walk during your lunch break or as a way to unwind after work
Move your body
Effective exercise doesn’t need to be an hour long grueling gym session. It can be as simple as a moderately-paced walk to your local shop or doing the hoovering. Anything that gets your heart rate up is classed as exercise. Exercise is great for battling symptoms of depression because it stimulates feel-good hormones like Serotonin. If you don’t fancy getting your Serotonin fix from sunshine today, try doing some exercise from the comfort and warmth of your own home instead. I definitely recommend a solo dance party to 00s RnB music.
Talk to someone you can trust
Talking about your feelings is one of the best ways to prevent a deterioration in your mental health. If it’s accessible to you, having a therapist is fantastic. However, talking to someone you trust and letting your trusted companion know if you start to feel low is just as effective.
Boost your Vitamin D
As mentioned, Vitamin D is crucial in the production of Serotonin, but it’s limited in the winter. You can boost your Vitamin D via supplements such as cod liver oil, or through increasing the quantity of Vitamin D rich foods in your diet. This includes oily fish like salmon, herring and sardines, egg yolks, mushrooms, milk, orange juice and (Always consult your doctor when making changes to your diet)
If the winter months are especially hard for you, please know that you’re not alone. Over 1 in 20 people in the UK have been diagnosed with SAD, and a third of people aged 16+ report having lower mood during the winter months. We’re in this together.
Sending love, hugs and lots of sunshine to you all! ☀️