Around 3 out of every 100 people in the UK experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in Winter. I’m one of them and if you are too I want you to know that you don’t have to live in fear of Winter. By making simple changes to your lifestyle you can help yourself through the darker months.
I don’t know exactly how long I’ve been experiencing SAD as it crept up on me slowly, one Winter at a time, but it was Winter 2011 that things got bad enough for me to realise I had a problem. That Winter was a particularly bad one; I could hardly sleep, my energy level plummeted fast, I felt cold all the time and the only time I really left the house was to drag myself to work. I ate badly, gained weight, was tearful and life looked empty and hopeless.
In fact I felt like this:
After what seemed a decade Winter ended and I found I could sleep again, get things done as usual and I felt like ‘me’ again. Looking back, I could see how different my behaviour had been since about October and I realised I couldn’t let that happen again if I could possibly help it. I found out more about SAD and about how it could be eased by using a light box, eating with more care, planning ahead and making other small changes. When Winter 2012 came around I still dreaded it and it was still hard, but nowhere near as bad; I was tired and my mood wasn’t great but still able to function and get on with my everyday life.
It’s a long post split into sections, so if you want to scroll to one in particular look for the big pink headings:
- Planning ahead
- 9 more tips to make this your best Winter yet
I’m not an expert in diet, exercise or mental health; All my advice on SAD is based on my own experience of it and on information I’ve picked up on the way. If you believe you’re suffering from SAD or any other health condition your first port of call should be with your doctor to rule out the possibility underlying illness.
During Winter in the Northern Hemisphere light levels drop drastically. For a full explanation of why this causes SAD I recommend the MIND website but put simply when you get enough natural sunlight your brain produces normal amounts of two important chemicals:
- Melatonin which regulates sleep
- Serotonin which regulates mood.
People with SAD produce too much melatonin in Winter and too little serotonin, so you end up feeling more tired and having a lower mood. As you can imagine, these two effects do not help each other out!
Ordinary lighting at home and work isn’t anywhere near bright enough to make a difference so to get enough light you need to do two things on a daily basis:
- Go outside, especially in the early afternoon when the sun is at it’s brightest. Not only will you get sunlight, going for a gentle stroll on your lunch break will give you more energy and a change of scene.
- Invest in a daylight lamp. This is the single most important thing you can do to alleviate SAD. Daylight lamps are designed to replicate the brightness of sunlight, so using one for around 2 – 3 hours a day (depending on how bright that particular lamp is) should help you feel much better, as long as you use it properly at the right time. The really good ones get quite expensive, but more budget friendly ones are available. Some online shops rent out light boxes by the month so you could always rent one for a month and see if it helps before you commit to buying one. If you do buy or rent a lamp find out how bright it is and how close to it you need to sit to get the benefit. Light is measured in lux; a good daylight lamp should give out 10,000 lux or higher. www.sada.org.uk have a useful buying guide have a look before you buy to make sure you’re getting the most effective lamp you can.
A daylight lamp can also be used at times other than Winter if you find you experience SAD when the weather’s particularly dull. SAD tends to be at it’s worse between December and February but can last from September to April. It feels odd at first to sit in the glow of a little box but after a couple of days it becomes familiar, although sometimes my husband has to bully me into using it because I start the season in denial that it’s Winter yet!
At one time humans worked and rested with the seasons, working shorter days in Winter when it goes dark early. Now our lives continue in the same routine all year round, so what can you do to lighten the load for yourself during the shorter days?
Well as this is me I’m obviously going suggest making a plan because I LOVE a plan. Here’s what to include:
- Plan for major events: If you have birthdays or anniversaries coming up, or if you celebrate a Winter festival it’s worth planning and buying gifts and non-perishable food now, writing cards and planning the occasion. Having your gifts and cards ready to go and knowing that you’ve done everything possible in advance will take the pressure off later and stop things from becoming a burden when your energy is at a low ebb. If you’re working to a tight budget this will also help you keep costs low by preventing any last minute panic buying.
- Identify challenges: Are there times during Winter that you’re likely to be particularly down? It could be anything from a visit from annoying in-laws to the anniversary of the death of a loved one. If you know it will be a challenge for you think about how you can be gentler with yourself at the time, such as taking a day off work or getting out in the open to find some space and time to yourself.
- Get your house in order: If you have bills that need paying, repairs that need doing or any other unfinished business that’s hanging over you get it done if you possibly can. Now’s a good time to clear out any unwanted stuff from your home and give it a deep clean. This will give you some head space (honestly, it really helps!) and make it easier to keep your home comfortable during Winter. Check your budget or create one, and if there are any bills or payments coming up that you know you won’t be able to cover contact the company that it’s for now to inform them and find out if they can offer you any flexibility. If supermarkets stress you out, consider setting up an online shopping account so you don’t have to waste time and energy going to the shops.
- Stock up: Do a big shop and prepare batches of homemade ready meals to freeze. Bolognaise, chilli, curry, casserole, pies and soup all freeze well and keep their flavour so you can freeze portions now and defrost them when you need them, saving you the effort of cooking on cold, dark nights when all you want to do is eat NOW.
- Factor in down time: If you have the funds to fly away to somewhere sunny for a three month stay in a stunning beach side villa do so now. If not don’t fear, there are plenty of ways to fit in the rest and relaxation you’ll need in the coming months. If you have enough annual leave days at work, or are fortunate enough to work on flexi time book the occasional day or part day off here and there to give yourself a shorter week to look forward to. If you have an understanding boss and are comfortable doing so it could be worth telling them about how Winter affects you and asking if it will be possible to book days off at relatively short notice if it doesn’t affect cover. If you look after your children full time, or work and care for children, find out if a friend or relative would be able to care for them for a day or half a day so you can take extra time to rest and look after yourself. Can you mark out any weekend days in advance where you’d be able to take some down time to rest?
- Talk: Depression of any kind can be a self-disguising illness so consider telling your partner or a friend or family member about how hard Winter can be for you. I spent almost the entire Winter of 2011 heading closer and closer to a breakdown without a soul knowing about it until I confided in my husband just how bad I felt in late January. Why? Because when you’re experiencing mental health problems you can feel embarrassed or even ashamed about the difficulty you’re having coping with simple, everyday things, and the idea of anyone knowing how you really feel can be frightening. Telling someone you trust can make a major difference because you know that someone who understands and care will be there to support you.
- Treats: Plan whatever treats your time and budget allow, preferably experiences you can look forward to like a trip to the cinema or a day by the sea. Having plans in place for fun things breaks up the Winter months into manageable chunks.
We know that what we eat affects our physical health but how often do we consider the impact on our mental health? For SAD sufferers having a basic understanding of the link is vital. This isn’t an in depth explanation of nutrition, I’m just going to stick to this basic fact:
Some foods cause your blood sugar to climb quickly, giving you a brief spike in energy which is followed swiftly by a ‘crash’, when your body’s burned up the sugar and your energy level plummets.
Food where the sugar’s accessed and used up quickly are classed as high Glycemic Index (GI) and foods where the sugar’s used up slowly are classed as low GI. Examples of high GI foods are:
- Refined sugars in sweets, chocolate, cakes and biscuits
- Processed carbohydrates in pasta (cooked until soft), bread, rice and breakfast cereals such as Cornflakes and Rice Crispies
You don’t need to give up high GI foods but it helps to cut down on them and eat them alongside lower GI foods such as:
- Grains such as oats, quinoa, barley and millet
- Wild rice
- Pasta cooked so that it’s barely tender
- Beans and lentils
- Bread containing lots of grains and where the flour hasn’t been greatly processed
- Most fruits and vegetables
If you’d like to find out more there’s a list of low, medium and high GI food here.
Caffeine: Caffeine can also give you spikes and crashes. In Winter I cut right down on caffeine by drinking more herbal tea and decaffeinated coffee and it plays a big part in evening out my mood. If you don’t want to give up caffeine pair it with a low GI snack like oatcakes or a piece of fruit. The low GI snack will cause a slow peak in your blood sugar which should take some of the sting out of the caffeine spike/crash.
Alcohol: On the subject of drinks alcohol is also very sugary and is a stimulant, like caffeine, so avoid drinking excessively as it could make you a very grumpy drunk!
Water: This is a much repeated advice but I’m going to say it anyway; drink plenty of water every day. Most of us spend most of our time dehydrated! This makes it harder for your internal organs and all of your cells to shift out waste products, and being dehydrated can leave you sluggish and confused. Your skin will glow after a couple of days of good hydration, which is a bonus. If you don’t like drinking water mix in a little high juice squash for flavour.
Here are some ideas for tasty, filling things to eat to keep you balanced during SAD:
Breakfast: Porridge with cinnamon, nutmeg, maple syrup, fresh berries or frozen berries heated up and mixed in. I use sweetened soy milk in my porridge as it’s creamy and sweet. I mix it together the night before, leave in covered in the fridge then microwave it for two minutes the next morning. It’s much better for you than quick oats, is more filling and much cheaper. Granola with low fat plain or soy yogurt is very tasty and is more like eating dessert than breakfast although some granolas are heavy on the sugar. Whole grain toast drizzled with olive oil (especially basil olive oil) and lightly spread with Marmite hits the spot if you have a savoury tooth.
Lunch: Tuna salad sandwich on wholegrain bread is easy to make if you’re in a rush and it’s satisfying at lunchtime, something to sink your teeth into. Sardines on wholegrain toast are comfort food at its best, as is a large bowl of thick, homemade soup (make a big batch, freeze in portions and you’ll save time, effort and money).
Dinner: Replace white pasta with wholemeal pasta or have a smaller portion of pasta and add move vegetables instead. Top it with lashings of bolognaise sauce loaded with vegetables and herbs and you’ve got a mighty filling meal. Or keep things simple with jacket potato and beans (although I always end up sprinkling cheese over it, it’s just too happy-making to miss). A piece of fish, sauce, new potatoes or mash made with the skins still on the potatoes and served with lightly cooked veg is easy and filling, and if you buy ready-to-steam vegetables and fish portions it will take very little time to prepare at the end of the day.
Snacks: Oatcakes or rice crackers with a bit of peanut butter or hummus fill the hungry gap well, as do vegetables dipped in hummus and oat bars instead of biscuits. Chopped up fruit and plain popcorn kernels air-popped in the microwave are good for nibbling on. If you enjoy chocolate try dark chocolate containing cocoa solids of 70% and up; two or three pieces of dark chocolate a day is good for you as it contains antioxidants which help cells repair themselves.
It can be hard to stay fit in Winter for anyone but it’s further complicated if you’re experiencing the symptoms of SAD, but doing some gentle exercise will lift your mood. Here are some ideas for gentle exercise that will help you keep well without leaving you drained:
- Walking: A long walk out in nature gives you some head space, but even a short walk in your local park or around your neighbourhood will stop you from becoming too stationary between now and Spring. Turn it from a gentle stroll into a brisk walk and it will get your heart working a little harder. The same goes for cycling and jogging if you feel up to it, just keep it light and comfortable.
- Home exercise: It’s easy to fit in bits and pieces like lifting hand weights at home if you prepare. How about sit ups, push ups and using an exercise ball? No need to leave the house, pay gym fees or drag yourself out for a run in the cold and you can listen to music or watch TV at the same time. If you’re new to weights or haven’t lifted any for a long time start off light and work your way up so that you’re building muscles without straining them.
- Yoga and Pilates: These are good for your body and mind, they’re however challenging you want them to be and they build strength and flexibility. All you need is an exercise mat and loose, comfortable clothes. I do yoga at home following videos from Yoga With Adrienne on YouTube and she’s made one for seemingly every occasion and fitness level. Listen to your body and take things at your own pace.
- Swimming: I have to confess that I struggle with this at the best of times because of the faff of getting there, getting changed then coming home damp, but the actual swimming in the middle is good fun. Swimming works out your whole body and the water supports you so it’s gentler on your joints. I enjoy paddling up and down the pool with my unique combination of breast stroke and doggy paddle. Most pools run aquarobics classes and some do Yoga classes in the pool. If you can’t swim or aren’t confident at it there are adult only classes that can get you started.
- Dancing: If you feel up for it put on some music and dance ridiculously. Wiggle, hop and prance like you’ve lost your grip to lift your spirits and get your heart pumping.
9 more tips to make this Winter your best yet
- Gratitude: Make a list of your favourite things. Listing the good things in your life that you’re grateful for shifts your focus from lack to abundance. Every year around October time I sit down and make a list in my journal of things I enjoy about Winter and things I’m looking forward to.
- Meditation: It’s been shown in many studies and anecdotally that meditation reduces stress, helps with depression and promotes equilibrium, as well as being beneficial to overall physical and mental health. I avoided meditation for years because I believed I’d have to empty my mind of thoughts, but it’s more a case of learning to control your breathing and to gently observe but step back from thoughts and feelings, letting them pass you by without actively engaging with them.
- Pressure: The second best thing I did to help myself, after regularly using a daylight lamp, was to take pressure off myself to carry on at my usual pace with no let up. This meant cutting out anything unnecessary, such as extra housework, being careful of taking on extra jobs at work when I was exhausted and accepting that if I didn’t fancy doing the things I usually enjoyed that was fine. On those days when you feel you could have done better – and this applies to anything at all – don’t tell yourself “I’d better do it properly tomorrow, I’ve let myself down”. Just think “Tomorrow I’ll do better.” That way you’ve focused your intention on making a small change for the better rather than chancing everything at once.
- Be kind to yourself: If a close friend said to you “I’m so tired and fed up, I feel tearful all the time and I need a rest but the house needs cleaning, dinner needs to be cooked, I’ve got to get to the supermarket and I need to decide whether to take on that new project at work. ” What would you tell them? Would you tell them to stop moaning and get to work? Probably not. You’d offer a shoulder to cry on, tell them to sod the house work, have beans on toast for dinner, order their shopping online and turn down the project if it was going to wear them out. Cut yourself the same slack as you would for anyone else you love. Gentleness towards ourselves often takes second place to the needs of others, but all of us need to love and nurture ourselves. You’re a unique person, beautiful in ways you may be unable to grasp, and you deserve your own care and understanding. If we were all gentler with ourselves think of how that attitude would spread and make the world a better place to live in.
- Routine: Establish an efficient morning and night routine before Winter kicks in. Put aside half an hour at night to wind down before getting into bed. TVs and computers keep your brain in waking mode long after you’ve turned them off. Quiet time before bed gives you time to reflect on the day, write in a journal, read something uplifting, listen to relaxing music and take your time getting ready for bed. Routines ease you in and out of the day and simplify things when you haven’t much energy.
- Keep warm: I’m much grumpier when I’m cold and I don’t want to do anything but try to get warmer. Try to stay comfortably warm in Winter or you’ll feel even less like leaving the sofa. Feeling cold and miserable about it just reinforces the feeling of grim Winter.
- Track it: Keep a simple record of your energy, mood and health during Winter. This will give you useful information about how your energy levels and mood change, when SAD symptoms start and finish and what makes things better or worse.
- Keep in touch: It’s easy to fall out of regular contact with friends and family when you’re feeling unmotivated but it’s important to put the effort in to maintain relationships. Try to keep on going out and seeing people; a text message or an email is better than nothing and will stop you falling out of circulation.
- Celebrate Spring! Be ready to notice the signs of new life appearing and when Spring does come around welcome it with open arms. If you make New Year’s resolutions, you could make them as Spring dawns rather than in the dead of Winter. Get outside, breathe deeply, soak up the light and feast your eyes on the green buds and early flowers. Shake off hibernation and that Winter feeling.
I hope you’re beginning to see that you do have some control over how you experience SAD. You can’t change the fact that you get it in the first place and it’s never going to be a jolly holiday but you can soften the impact by making simple adjustments to your routine. We don’t have to write off the darker days, we just have to work a little differently.
If you’ve got any tips, information or resources that help you cope with SAD I’d love to hear about them in the comments.