Dark mornings, dusky afternoons, and weather that feels bitingly Arctic can all make doing everyday things that little bit harder. Having to get out of bed when your eyes and body are cruelly deceived by an imitation of midnight is just one of them.
I’m sure that to some extent, we all suffer from the ‘winter blues’. The decreased hours of light can sometimes feel like we never see day, which can be disorientating to say the least. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a severe form of this; it’s recognised as a form of depression by the NHS and is often referred to as ‘winter depression’.
As many as one in six people suffer from SAD. Symptoms such as a persistent low mood, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, lethargy, overeating, and oversleeping can become so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to function. It’s a dark cloud that descends each year with the onset of autumn and winter.
As horrible as SAD sounds, there are ways for the disorder to be successfully managed and the symptoms to be alleviated. While light boxes (a special lamp that simulates sunlight), counselling, and antidepressants are all tried and tested ways to help control the depression, lifestyle has a huge part to play as well.
Regular exercise is one major lifestyle behaviour that can have a profound impact on how you get through the winter months – whether you’re an SAD sufferer or not. There’s evidence to suggest that physical activity boosts the brain’s levels of serotonin not just during exercise, but for hours after it. Serotonin is a chemical that’s produced naturally in the body, yet it’s commonly used in antidepressants due to its positive effects on mood and wellbeing.
The changes in your mood might not be down to just to chemicals: physical activity can do fantastic things for your confidence too! Whether it’s that post-workout feeling of achievement, knowing that you’re doing good things for your health, or being able to manage your weight – all of these small, but wonderful by-products of keeping active can only have a positive effect on how you feel in yourself. Now, it’s a bit more difficult to prove this in scientific research, but I’ll go out on a limb and testify that, as a long-term sufferer of depression and anxiety, exercise has been truly life-changing for me. After I’ve given a workout my all I may be sweat-slicked, maroon-faced, and panting like a dog on a hot day, but there’s no matching that feeling of pride from having actually done it!
If you’re suffering right now, getting active can seem like the last thing in the world you’d want to do. But getting active doesn’t have to be hours spent running or at the gym. Seeing activity in that way can be incredibly off-putting.
The World Health Organisation recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. This may sound like a lot – but it can actually be broken down into 10-minute chunks. So it could be three 10-minute bursts for five days each week. Or two ten-minute bursts on six days and three ten-minute bursts on the seventh day. You get the picture. It’s about making activity work for you.
Moderate activity can be anything from a vigorous hoovering session to a session in the pool – as long as you’re breathing a bit harder than usual. Think of the Active10 campaign you may have seen on the news recently; just a brisk 10–minute walk can make a difference to your health and your wellbeing if it’s something you do each day.
Perhaps a brisk walk can be done during the day, as a way of making the most out of the limited sunlight we do have. It may be cold, but if you wrap up you’ll have a chance to appreciate the white-skied, bare-treed beauty that winter brings. If the cold is too much to bear, there are plenty of things you can do in your front room, too – from free online yoga tutorials to dancing around to your favourite song.
Sometimes, negative feelings – whether they’re SAD-related or you’re just feeling blue – can be all-consuming. But one way to motivate yourself to do activity, no matter how big or small, is to think about how you’ll feel after it’s done. Because nobody ever regrets pushing themselves to do something they once thought they couldn’t. Because the post-activity endorphin rush that takes you to unprecedented levels of relaxation is second to none. Because pride in yourself and what you can do is something you need to hold on to in times of darkness.
If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, make an appointment to visit your GP.
The following sites have further information on SAD and useful tips on how to manage it: