Tips for Coping with SAD and the Winter Blues

Tips for coping with SAD and the ‘Winter Blues’

I was delighted to be invited along to the studios of BBC Radio Derby recently to talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  You can listen to the interview here (its starts 1hr 15 minutes into the programme).

Talking about it with Sally Pepper and the other contributors has prompted me into writing this long overdue blog post on the subject.

What is SAD?

SAD is recognised as a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern. Symptoms appear during the winter months due the lack of sunshine and reduced hours of daylight. The lack of sunlight is believed to affect the production of hormones such as melatonin and serotonin in the brain: light stimulates the hypothalamus which is the part of the brain that controls our mood, appetite and our internal body clock, that regulates our sleep patterns.

An estimated 2 million people suffer with SAD in the UK.  It is most prevalent in people aged between 18-30, and affects more women than men.

SAD can be best understood as a hibernation response or kind of ‘genetic adaption’ to help us survive the harsh winter months. We are mammals after all, and it could be argued that we are meant to slow down and ‘lie low’ during the shorter days and lay down fat stores in case food becomes scarce.  All around us nature is enjoying a period of rest and renewal, ready for the intense activity of Spring – perhaps we should be doing the same!

Around three-quarters of our ancestors would have worked outside 200 years ago, compared with just 10% of us now, which impacted in two significant ways:

  1. They had more exposure to sunshine and daylight in the winter than we do (nowadays we are usually driving to and from work in the dark and may not go outside at all during the day).
  2. Their working days would have been considerably shorter in Winter due to reduced daylight hours, forcing then to rest and sleep more than we do (they would have slept 12-14 hours a day – far more than most of us manage).
What are the symptoms of SAD?
  • Exhaustion and lethargy
  • Low mood
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Craving sweet, carbohydrate based foods often leading to weight gain
  • Feeling antisocial, which can lead to isolation
  • Negative thoughts and feelings
  • Loss of libido
  • Dreading the approach of winter and the long, dark nights
  • Sudden easing of symptoms in the spring
Diagnosis and Treatment

If you think you may be suffering from SAD go and see your GP and discuss your concerns with them.  If you are diagnosed with the condition it’s likely your GP will suggest a combination of anti-depressant medication (or you could try St John’s Wort) and a talking therapy such as counselling or CBT.  They may also suggest a ‘lightbox’, which simulates sunlight and is able to regulate the production of melatonin and seratonin in the brain, which improves our mood and sleep patterns and therefore brings relief to many sufferers of SAD.

Tips for Coping with SAD

 In addition to  counselling/medication/a lightbox, you could also try a holistic approach by incorporating the following ideas:

ü  Diet – SAD often makes us crave sugary, comforting foods. Unfortunately these can make us feel sleepy and lethargic, and usually cause us to gain weight – all of which adds to increased feelings of depression. Try to focus on warm, comforting foods, which satisfy our cravings, but don’t have unhealthy side effects. A diet high in foods like porridge, nourishing soups, whole grain pastas and rice, which all contain serotonin will boost your mood and increase your energy without piling on the pounds. Choose foods known to improve brain function – nuts, whole grains, leafy greens and foods high in omega 3.

ü  Take regular exercise – this will raise your metabolism, improving circulation and boosting your mood.

ü  Alcohol – booze is a depressant, so it actually works against us if we’re feeling blue. Try to keep intake to a minimum.

ü  Get outside every day – spend a little time in your garden if you have one, or go for a walk to give you some fresh air and contact with nature.  If you can’t get outside, try and make your environment as light and airy as possible, and sit by a window if you can.

ü  Bring nature inside too – having plants, flowers, and natural items around us can help us to feel brighter when we are feeling low.  Letting some fresh air in can also help to oxygenate our systems which helps with concentration and tiredness.   Contact with pets is known to improve low mood and help us relax too.

ü  Keep a journal – a great way to ‘offload’ your feelings and perhaps set some goals to help you gradually feel better.

ü  Do something creative – make something (woodwork, pottery, knitting, sewing, baking, drawing etc) these kind of activities will occupy the mind and help the long winters evenings to pass.

ü  Get enough sleep – lie-ins at the weekend, and early nights will help. Lower the lights after 8pm and restrict use of ‘blue’ screens in the evening as they emit daylight glow that keeps us awake. Try soothing candles and relaxing baths before bed to help your system unwind.

ü  Relax – be kind and gentle with yourself. As previously mentioned, in nature the winter months are for rest and renewal, before the intense activity of Spring when everything’s bursting back into life again. So why not create some ‘hibernation time’ each day and give yourself permission to slow down for a while – perhaps you could snuggle on the sofa with a good book, a nice throw and a warm drink, or listen to some gentle music and let yourself rest and relax. 

ü  Take a tip from the birds – migrate! Finding the winter sun, if you can afford to go away, can really ease the symptoms for SAD sufferers, especially if you can plan your break in the really difficult weeks of January and February.

ü  Plan things to look forward to – that will lift your mood e.g meeting a friend, organising a mini break, or a trip to the cinema etc. Find out if there are any events on locally you might enjoy.  Regular ‘treats’ to look forward to can really help.

ü  Complementary therapies – treatments like aromatherapy, reflexology, reiki etc can all help you relax and lift your mood. You can access the benefits of aromatherapy at home by using oil burners, scented candles and drops of essential oils in your bath too..

ü  Make an effort to meet up with friends, or get involved with people through a class or group activity – its easy to become a bit reclusive when the weather is cold and miserable, but isolation often makes us feel more blue.

If anyone has any other ideas to add to this list, do let me know.  Even though the weather is cold and gloomy now, the first snowdrops are just beginning to push through and the days are getting longer.  Spring is definitely on its way.

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