Written by Charlotte Haigh MacNeil
Meet the expert: Sam Challis is information manager at mental health charity Mind (mind.org.uk)
If your mood tends to decline in the winter, the chances are you’re feeling at your lowest right now. “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) usually begins in the autumn, but as time goes on and the miserable weather and short, dark days continue you might start feeling worse,” says Sam Challis of mental health charity Mind.
This time of year is peak SAD season – but you don’t have to let the blues overwhelm you – there are lots of things you can do to lift your spirits.
Have I got SAD?
Although we all tend to have less energy and want to sleep more during the winter months, SAD is something more than this. It has the same symptoms as other forms of depression – including loss of pleasure in things you usually enjoy, a change in appetite and/or sleep patterns, decreased libido and low mood, typically starting in the autumn and continuing into March or April.
Some people have a milder version known as ‘winter blues’ and are only affected in the middle of the winter. If you have persistent low mood and other symptoms throughout the winter, but not at other times of year, chances are it’s SAD rather than another form of depression.
“We don’t know for sure what causes SAD,” says Sam, “but lack of light is thought to be a factor.” Your body clock – which tells you when to sleep and wake – takes its cues from light and dark.
The shorter, darker days of winter cue your body clock to prime you for sleep, resulting in lower energy and mood. If you spend a lot of time indoors you may find your symptoms are worse because your body clock misses out on the daylight signals that wake you up.
SAD may affect women over 50 particularly severely. “Although SAD generally eases with age, it can interact with other issues likely to affect you at this time in your life,” says Sam. “For example, winter depression can worsen difficult feelings around divorce, bereavement, anxiety about finances or sadness about your children leaving home.
“And if you tend to socialise less at this time of year, you might find feelings of isolation and loneliness become worse.” But you don’t have to put up with feeling gloomy until the days get longer and lighter – try these simple ways to feel better.
Steps to feeling brighter
- Talk about it
“Opening up really can help,” says Sam. It can be a relief to share your feelings, and that alone can help you feel better. And if other people in your life know you’re finding things difficult, they might suggest solutions, such as meeting up for a walk every weekend to cheer you up.
- Act as if it’s summer
No, we don’t mean you should put on a swimsuit and head to the beach, “but it is a good idea to try to do at least some of the things you normally do when the weather’s better,” says Sam. Getting as much light as possible can go some way to boosting your mood, while socialising as usual can also be a mood-lifter.
Compare your winter routine to what you do in the summer – are you driving rather than walking to see friends and family or go to the shops, or staying in every evening rather than getting out? Try to reintroduce some of your more social, outdoor-based summer habits, even if that just means walking into town or meeting your friends for a coffee.
- Let there be light
Some people with SAD find light boxes – which simulate bright summer light – can make a big difference. Sitting by one for just a couple of hours a day may be enough to help. “The message is definitely try before you buy, as they don’t help everyone,” says Sam. But if light therapy does work for you, it could be life changing. Most manufacturers will let you have a free trial.
The SAD Association (sada.org.uk) has lots of useful information about light boxes, or you could ask your GP.
- Look after yourself
“It may sound obvious, but taking care of yourself is really important,” says Sam. Get plenty of sleep and eat a healthy, balanced diet, with lots of fresh fruit and veg, no matter how much you feel like loading up on stodgy cakes and puddings.
If you need a piece of cake, have an apple first and a smaller piece of cake. Also, don’t drink too much alcohol. “You may feel it will boost your mood but alcohol is a depressant and can make you feel worse,” says Sam. Stick to no more than 1-2 units a day – one unit equals a small glass of wine or a single measure of spirits.
- Try mood-boosting supplements
Taking a Vitamin D supplement may help lift your mood, according to research. Our bodies usually make this from sunlight and in the winter many of us are deficient. Try Better You DLux 3000 Vitamin D Oral Spray, £7.95/100 sprays, from Holland & Barrett.
Taking Vitamin B12 may also help, studies have found – low levels have been linked to depression. Vitamin B12 is found in meat, eggs and dairy, but as we get older we can have trouble absorbing it from food, so it might be a good idea to take a supplement, such as Viridian High Twelve B Complex, £6.80/30 caps, from viridian-nutrition.com and health food stores.
You could also try the herb St John’s wort, which has been shown to help ease mild to moderate depression – try Schwabe Karma Mood Maximum Strength, £15.49/30, from Holland & Barrett.
See your GP before taking vitamin supplements or herbal remedies, particularly if you take prescribed medicines as they may interact with these. Always speak to your GP before stopping any medication or before starting any diet or exercise regime.
- Get moving
“Physical activity can help all forms of depression, including SAD,” says Sam. “It may be particularly beneficial to exercise outside. Research has found getting active in green, natural areas can help improve mood.
It doesn’t matter if you live in an urban area – any green space, such as a local park, is ideal. Try just going for a walk outdoors.”
- Take time to relax
Meditation can help ease depression and boost your overall wellbeing, says research. You could try a meditation CD that will take you through exercises. Or simply sit quietly for five or ten minutes each day, focusing on your breathing – this can be enough to make a difference.
Find it hard to meditate? Try a meditative form of exercise, such as yoga or tai chi, instead.
When to see your doctor
If your symptoms have continued for more than a couple of weeks, or you’re really struggling with your mood and it’s getting in the way of your daily life, see your GP. They may refer you for a talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or prescribe medication, if that’s right for you.
There's more health advice in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.