Low mood and depressive thoughts can often accompany a change in season. It can happen in any season but as we enter the winter months it is likely that most of us will experience an increase in low mood to some extent. It has been officially named as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and has been recognised in the latest version of the widely used diagnostic manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) as a common disorder. SAD occurs at certain times of the year but is fully in remission otherwise. It can affect different people in different ways, with some suffering very serious periods of depression. While most of us will not experience the most severe form of it, there is a lot of benefit in engaging in behaviours and changes in thinking that can counter it.
What causes it?
There are a few reasons attributed to the condition, but the most popular relates to a reduction in daylight hours. Others include secondary effects of the change to colder and less appealing weather. In some cases, as with non-seasonal related depression or low mood, chemical imbalances in the brain that can be counteracted by medication are attributed to the onset. However, while in some cases medication can be recommended (a GP is required to make such judgements), it is also worth noting that some chemical imbalances can be affected through practical behaviours such as exercise. The following suggestions should provide a good starting point to help with the winter blues:
Exercise is known to help with depression. It increases the amount of feel-good brain chemicals such as endorphins and has a positive effect on the chemical imbalance. Unfortunately, the change in weather and reduction in daylight hours tends to reduce the motivation to carry out exercise which means that the natural mood elevating exercise that occurs in seasons with more favourable weather is absent. Even a small amount of exercise, preferably outside if weather or personal situation permits, will do wonders to combat the winter blues. Do not feel that you have to do intense exercise, just try increasing what you currently do by 15 minutes a day of light exercise and you’ll see a benefit.
2) Increase time spent in the daylight
Daylight has a significant effect on our mood. Countless studies have shown that even small amounts of exposure to sunlight can help to increase mood. It is possible that some people in the UK who work daytime shifts, or stay inside for high quantities of time, will not see daylight between waking up and going to sleep. It may not be as desirable to go outside during the winter months, but if you want to combat the winter blues then you will have to force yourself to spend at least half an hour, preferably a lot more, outside per day during daylight hours. You may have to leave the warm confines of your living room or staffroom, but fitting it in can benefit your wellbeing substantially. If physical circumstances do not allow for going outside, then you can either manoeuvre yourself to a window position or specialised SAD lights can also be purchased to give an alternative to natural light.
3) Change your thinking
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is based upon the premise that the way we think determines the way we feel and behave. Usually, essential routine appointments and tasks like going to work, eating and drinking are carried out largely irrespective of the way we feel. However, the extra non-essential things such as meeting up with friends, other social activities, spending time sourcing and preparing healthy food and completing tasks such as cleaning or general household chores are more likely to be pushed aside with the reason of not feeling good. Usually the reasoning behind this is correctly based upon the premise that the low mood or not feeling good is an unusual occurrence and will pass at some point. At the point that it passes those non-essential tasks maybe resumed and ‘normality’ is achieved once again. However, during the winter the low mood or not feeling great may not pass as quickly as it does in the summer. Therefore, the returning to ‘normality’ may not be achieved consistently until the season changes again. This is not to suggest that a good mood cannot be achieved, but merely that low mood may occur more frequently during the winter. If the same threshold is used in the winter as in the summer for not feeling good enough to do certain things, then a cycle of low mood can begin to occur.
All of the non-essential things listed above such as preparing healthy food, and social activities like meeting up with friends, also have an effect on mood. If the seasonal change causes you to not feel like doing them, then not doing them will compound the issue. It may sound simple, but changing your expectation of how you feel during the winter can really help. If you expect that you will not feel as great, then it will reduce the number of times you decide not to do the things that could serve to enhance your mood. Obviously illnesses commonly occur during the winter and these should not be ignored, but on the whole a higher tolerance of not feeling great should be adopted.
Unfortunately, some effects of the winter blues are a common occurrence for most of us, but with a few simple steps such as exercising, spending more time outside during daylight hours, and increasing your tolerance of low mood during the winter months, in most cases the effects can be significantly reduced.