Fending off the “Winter Blues”

As the days are getting shorter and we are starting to see darker evenings creeping in, we can sometimes feel our mood darkening at the same time. In the UK “Blue Monday” is named as the saddest day of the year which falls on the third Monday of the year. It’s thought to be due to Christms and New Years celebrations being over and the potential debt that comes with those as well as failed New Years resolutions and being back at work after a Christmas break. However, it is also due to the short days and lack of sunlight and the effect this can have on our mood. 

Can the seasons really affect your mood?

In simple terms, two hormones within the brain are a big part of our circadian rhythm (when we are alert and when we are sleepy). Sunlight and darkness have a big effect on how we feel. Serotonin, which is increased in natural sunlight, is a mood booster and is associated with feelings of calm and focussed attention. Melatonin, which is produced when it is darker, gets you ready to sleep. 

Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and particularly a specific type of depression known as Major Depression with Seasonal Pattern, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

This is a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern, getting worse in the winter and better in the summer. The symptoms are the typical symptoms of depression (low mood, irritability, feelings of despair, fatigue, sleeping disturbances, etc) but they are more prevalent in the darker months of the year. So you are more likely to feel depressed over the winter time when there is less sunlight and the days are shorter and better during the summer. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, around 5% of adults experience SAD and it is more common in women than men with the most common age of onset being between 18 and 30 years of age. There is also thought to be some genetic link because it is commonly seen in related individuals. While SAD is seen in people both in both northern and southern hemispheres, it is far less common in those living closer to the Equator, where there are consistent and long daylight hours. Despite this research, we are not entirely sure why SAD occurs in some people and not others but it’s theorised that individuals with SAD have higher melatonin production over the winter months than average, which can leave you feeling tired and demotivated and can tip into depression.

How can you prevent the colder months making you blue?

  • Being out in sunlight: Getting 15 minutes a day of sunlight on your face, arms and hands can help to boost your serotonin levels, as well as improving your uptake of Vitamin D, reducing stress, building stronger bones and even helping to heal skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis. One of my favourite benefits of getting out in natural sunlight during the day is improved sleep. Even sitting by a window while you work can help your exposure to natural sunlight. However, you obviously need to be careful because too much exposure to UV light can increase your risk of skin cancer so it’s useful to speak to your doctor about how to do this safely or think about skin protection. 
  • Lifestyle changes: Exercising outside can help you to not only get the sun exposure that you need but physical exercise helps improve mood too. This could mean taking a break from work at lunchtime and going for a walk. Dr Andrew McCulloch, a former chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, says: “There’s convincing evidence that 30 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week is effective against depression and anecdotal evidence that lighter exercise will have a beneficial effect, too.
  • Light therapy (also known as phototherapy): This involves sitting in front of a light therapy box that emits a bright light. This light does not include the harmful UV rays found in natural sunlight). Generally this means sitting in front of the light box for around 20 mins each morning, just during the darker months. 
  • Antidepressant medications: Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors are a medication comply used for those with SAD and are a type of anti-depressant that helps to increase your natural levels of serotonin. 
  • Counselling/Psychotherapy: As depression is the most common side effect of SAD, talking therapy can help reduce the depressive symptoms and help you find ways to cope during winter. Cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, helps you to identify and understand negative patterns of behaviour so that, eventually, you can break the negative cycle of altered thinking, feelings and behaviour and implement a more positive sequence. 

“O, Sunlight! The most previous gold to be found on Earth”

  • – Roman Payne

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