So it’s winter. All the excitement of Christmas is over and the decorations are back in the loft for another year. The days are short, the evenings are dark it’s cold and it never stops raining. Is it any wonder that a gloomy mood of the winter blues prevail? We’ve just passed Blue Monday, supposedly the most depressing day of the year. This is actually something invented by marketing men with the aim of getting us to buy more holidays, but it does hit a nerve.
So are you just gloomy, or are you really SAD? SAD, or Seasonally Affective Disorder is when normal feelings of gloom and misery shade into actual depression, and these periods of low mood are worse during the dark days of winter. In these circumstances medical intervention is needed and medication may be helpful.
Symptoms of SAD
So how do you know when you have SAD? It is something of a continuum from just having the blues, but if you notice these symptoms, it’s time to take action:
- Feelings of low mood most of the day, nearly every day
- Not feeling like doing activities you once enjoyed
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Not having much energy
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Not able to concentrate
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
- Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
- Overeating, and really craving carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
Your GP will be able to help you with this, and can offer you several possible treatments, alone or in combination.
Treatments for SAD
These fall into four categories:
- Light therapy
Here, you spend 30-45 minutes every day sat in front of a very bright light that is similar to daylight, usually first thing in the morning. This has proved very effective, with a remarkably high success rate of 60–80%.
- Psychotherapy (“talking therapy”)
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy aimed at helping people learn how to cope with difficult situations; CBT also has been adapted for people with SAD (CBT-SAD). It is typically conducted in two weekly group sessions for 6 weeks and focuses on replacing negative thoughts related to the winter season (e.g., about the darkness of winter) with more positive thoughts.
Because SAD, like other types of depression, is associated with disturbances in serotonin activity, antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are also used to treat it. However, antidepressants can take a while to act, they don’t work in every case, and they can have side effects.
- Vitamin D
Vitamin D is produced by the action of sunlight on the skin, so levels may fall during the winter months. It is inked to levels of serotonin, so Vitamin supplements can help to ease the symptoms of SAD. There is, however some debate over its effectiveness, so this may not be the primary route to choose.
Ways to beat the winter blues
If you’re not actually depressed but just down in the dumps, there are a number of things you can do to cheer yourself up.
Get outside when you can
Especially when it finally stops raining and we get a cold snap, it’s time to wrap up warm and get outside and appreciate that there is some beauty in winter. If you are an Oxford local, then you can go to places like Port Meadow and look at the frost on the trees and the grass. If it’s extremely cold, then go to Christchurch Meadow and laugh at the ducks trying to land on the ice. Then you can go home and have hot chocolate and feel your fingers and toes tingle as they warm up.
Watch a feel good movie, or go out for a laugh
Curl up on the sofa and dial up your favourite comedy and have a really good laugh. Laughter really is the best medicine – when you laugh your body releases serotonin and decreases the production of the stress hormone cortisol, making you feel good.
If you can afford it, there are some great comedy gigs out there, giving you a whole evening of stress-busting laughter. In Oxford, the New Theatre attracts some big names – Dara O’Brain is on in February for instance. There are also a number of comedy clubs, such as Jericho Comedy or The Glee Club that have a great range of standups.
Try not to hibernate
Leaving the warmth and safety of your duvet to face a cold, dark morning can be difficult, and there is a great temptation to lie in, but it is much better to keep to a regular sleep routine, waking up at the same time every day and exposing yourself to light as soon as you wake up. This will keep your circadian rhythm going, and will maintain the right levels of cortisol and other hormones.
Introduce some helpful foods into your diet
Treat yourself to a steaming mug of real, homemade hot chocolate. Use natural cocoa powder, which is high in heart-healthy and mood-boosting flavonoids and make it a treat that you can look forward to a few times a week.
Another food that boosts mood is fish – especially fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, lake trout, or sardines. Try to incorporate these into your diet three times a week.
Lace up your trainers and get active
Physical activity is great for reducing stress, relieving anxiety and generally lifting mood. Try running in a pleasant outdoor facility, such as the University Parks, Oxford, or just in your local streets. If this doesn’t appeal, then try cycling or joining a gym.
You could also try working out in your own living room. There are loads of workout videos on YouTube that you can access for free, and there are enough for you to find your own level, and ring the changes so you don’t get bored. Personally, I am a fan of MadFit. She has produced a whole range of workouts to stretch and tone all of your body, and they are all accessible but challenging.
Or if all else fails, run up and down stairs – I guarantee that doing this five times will definitely get the blood flowing. The idea is to push yourself to your own aerobic limit, so getting pink, sweaty and out of breath is the whole idea. Your body and your mind will thank you for it.
And finally, think positive – winter is not forever
Even in this freezing weather there are signs of spring. Even though it gets dark early, the days are getting longer – the solstice of December is behind us, and now here in Oxford, sunset has progressed to 16:38pm (23rd January). We will soon be seeing snowdrops and winter aconites. If you have access to a car and fancy a trip out, Welford Park near Newbury (where they filmed the Great British Bake Off) opens its doors in February , and you can see carpets of snowdrops stretching out under the trees.
So take a deep breath and start some self-help – you can cope with the winter blues!