If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome. Anne Bradstreet
For some people winter can be a severely debilitating and isolating time as they suffer Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and are managing depression-like symptoms. The exact cause of this condition isn’t fully understood but it is generally put down to lack of exposure to daylight during the winter months.
“It’s important for people to get up in the morning and get some exposure to sunlight, ideally before 8am. Dawn and morning light is believed to be integral in regulating our biorhythms. Combining this with exercise is really important. If people feel this is not helping they should go to their doctor for more advice,” Associate Professor and beyondblue Clinical Advisor, Michael Baigent said.
Are you SAD? Symptoms of SAD are similar to depression and include:
Tiredness/Fatigue/Drowsiness and indifference
Sleeping more than usual
Loss of libido (sex drive)
Overeating (especially carbohydrates)
Low mood for most of the day
Loss of interest in usual activities
Inability to focus
Poor appetite/Weight loss
Weakened immune system during the winter
Feeling generally “under the weather” without a cause
Isolating yourself/Avoiding social functions.
How can you avoid getting SAD this winter? “Everyone’s affected differently by SAD so what works for one person won’t for another. But there’s usually something that will help, so don’t give up if the first remedy you try doesn’t work. Just keep trying,” said Sue Pavlovich – a SADA (the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association) committee member.
Lighten up One of the more common treatments for SAD is light therapy which involves a light box that emits bright, fluorescent lights (10,000 lux) for about half an hour to an hour a day. Alternatively, brighten up your home or office by letting some natural light shine in. Some people find that using a dawn simulator – a bedside light, connected to an alarm clock, which mimics a sunrise and wakes you up gradually – as well as a light box can enhance SAD moods.
Try to do some outdoor activities as often as possible during the daylight hours in winter and let light come through your windows at home and work. Fresh air is essential for a stable mood, so it’s recommended to get outside for at least 10 to 15 minutes a day, regardless of the temperature.
The same with most mood boosting techniques, exercise is highly recommended. While exercise alone doesn’t cure SAD, it will improve your mood. Get walking every day for at least twenty minutes to boost serotonin levels.
Treat yourself with aromatherapy
Aromatherapy can be a healthy way to replenish the mind and spirit. What we smell can have a profound effect on how we feel because odours travel through the nose to the limbic system – the emotion-controlling part of the brain. Essential oils or candles that are reminiscent of spring and summer days – such as lemon, rosemary, peppermint, lavender and honeysuckle – could help. Concentrate on scents that bring back positive memories. To increase alertness and encourage happier moods try jasmine, bergamot or citrus scents.
Take vitamins A lack of essential vitamins can affect people with symptoms similar to depression. Take vitamin B to increase alertness and reduce depressive thoughts and anxiety, Vitamin D is linked to sunlight. Ensure you are getting enough iron, zinc and calcium in your diet. Incorporating multi vitamins or vitamin-specific supplements into your diet may assist with combating SAD.
Eat well If you don’t want the vitamins – eat dairy products, whole grains, spinach, eggs, fish (especially salmon), fortified cereals, vegetables and nuts. Fish oil tablets will also help. Try to resist your cravings for rich, decadent foods in the colder months. Eat less sugar. Make homemade soups which are warming and nutritious. Gaining weight will only make you feel bad, so make sure you continue to eat healthily and look after yourself. Cut back on white flour-based products, caffeine and sugars. Chicken is a good dietary source of vitamin B6 or pyridoxine. Vitamin B6 is also found in wheat germ, brown rice, spinach and sunflower seeds. Fish contains high sources of vitamin B12 or cobalamin. Vitamin B12 is also found in shellfish, dairy products and organ meats. According to a “Mens Health” study in 2004, vitamin B12 can help control some symptoms for anxiety, depression and fatigue. Peanuts, brewers yeast, beef kidney, beets, tuna and swordfish contain vitamin B3 or niacin. Vitamin B3 improves blood circulation and stimulates the production of serotonin. It can also help to treat symptoms associated with SAD such as oversleeping and fatigue.
Spend more time socialising. Actively work to avoid the isolating symptoms of SAD, and push yourself to go out even when you don’t feel like it. Make social outings – meeting up with friends for coffee or dinner or visiting family members – a priority in your winter life. Accept any invitations to social functions. Try to avoid negative people.
Reset your goals and priorities and make an effort to stay organised. Rearrange your to-do list into something practical and actionable. Start small and move onto the bigger things.
Review your stress management regime
Learn to manage stress better with yoga or meditation. Learning deep breathing skills will help you to release stress naturally.
Challenge yourself to go a month without alcohol. Alcohol has a strong link to depression, and it is better avoided in the winter months if you are already struggling with SAD symptoms. Especially avoid binge drinking – if you do drink, drink in small quantities. The last thing you need when you’re already feeling low is a hangover!
Sleep well Make sure your room is completely dark at night. Use earplugs to block out any noises that may disturb you in the night. Ensure you get at least eight hours sleep a night – but try to avoid sleeping any longer than that, even on weekends.
Create a playlist in iTunes to lead you up from the blues to a better place. Ramp up the tempo and themes to lift your mood. Choose songs you can relate to but are still positive and upbeat.
Read a book
Read a motivational book for tips and advice that get you ready to take on the world. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is very popular. There are many more inspiring reads, which I will blog about in coming weeks.
Keep warm Rug up – being cold will make you more depressed! Staying warm can reduce winter blues by half. Keep warm with hot drinks and hot food. Wear warm clothes and shoes, keep your home between 18ºC and 23ºC.
Find a new hobby Keeping your mind active with a new interest will ward off SAD symptoms. It could be anything from playing bridge, knitting, singing, joining a gym (and going), keeping a journal or writing a blog (this can also help you to express your feelings) etc. The important thing is that it is something you look forward to and can concentrate on.
Join a support group
There are SAD support groups around… mostly in the UK but I’m sure if you put some effort in you could find one or even start one. Sharing your experiences with others who can empathise, make be very therapeutic and make your symptoms more bearable.
Paint your house bright colours or place bright paintings around the house to distract from the dreariness of the winter months. Pick a room you spend a lot of time in and try a vibrant paint or artwork in there.
Learn something new
Take a class and learn something new. It can keep your mind off the winter gloom, particularly when it gets you out of the house and meeting new people.
Change your perspective Winter is inevitable in most countries, so it’s better to focus on the things you love about winter than the things you don’t like. Embrace the season and start a list for yourself and expand on it as you think of things. Take up a winter sport such as netball, ice skating, hockey or snowboarding – staying active will boost your energy. People tend to spring clean, why not winter clean? Live for today! Quit your job if it is too stressful. Take responsibility for your mood – it puts you in control and enables you to change it.
Make your bed each morning This means you need to get up and get going, and it also helps you to feel organised. Simply by making your bed each morning, you have achieved just one thing and you’re on the path to achieving so much more! Pat yourself on the back for the little things you can do when things are feeling difficult – remember always focus on the good, don’t waste energy contemplating what can’t be done.
Keep setting goals to work towards and set yourself little projects. Avoid letting household chores pile up, it will only make you feel worse. Try to stay on top of things. Keep everything simple in the winter months, try not to over-plan or overextend yourself – it will only make you feel stressed.
Avoid jet lag Try to avoid travelling during winter months and if you do, stick to no more than one time zone difference. Jet lag is particularly difficult for those with SAD – and if you must travel, go somewhere sunny and warm.
Manage your own expectations
Allow yourself extra time to do things – when you feel lousy, you work at a slower pace. Don’t try to live up to your usual high expectations, try to cut yourself some slack over the winter months.
Buy a pet
Cute animals in your life always help boost your mood. If you are unable to buy your own pet, head to a pet shop where you can play with theirs and not have the responsibility of caring for it.
Treat yourself Celebrate your accomplishments for the year so far and treat yourself. Plan something exciting that you can look forward to – a weekend away, a trip to the day spa or a dinner party.
Read a book or a magazine, go to bed early, try some meditation, light candles, participate in a yoga class, do some deep breathing exercises etc. Try to work out what helps you to wind down quickly when you are stressed and keep it in mind for the days that are really difficult.
If things are really out of control, get some professional help. Talking it out with a psychologist, counsellor or GP may help. Just like depression, SAD can be a very serious psychological problem. The sooner you get help, particularly before winter sets in, the better you will be able to cope with any SAD symptoms you may experience. Offence is the best defence.
For more information about Seasonal Affective Disorder refer to
Dr Normal Rosenthal’s book – Winter Blues: Everything you need
to know to beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.