Nine Ways To Combat Seasonal Depression
Illustration by Mr Luke Brookes
As the nights draw in, the clocks go back and the weather gets gloomier, so can our mood. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is, as the acronym suggests, the feeling of sadness during the winter season. This can affect up to two million people in the UK. It has a number of causes, including reduced exposure to sunlight, which leads to lower levels of melatonin (the sleep hormone) and serotonin (the happy hormone), change in appetite and disrupted sleeping patterns.
So, if you’re feeling a bit glum as the cold descends, here are a few tips to help you feel a little happier this upcoming sad season.
“It’s helpful to get out in the fresh air,” says psychologist and author Dr Audrey Tang. “Humans are biophilic. We like natural sights. We like trees. We like the smell of grass and rain. We like sunlight. All these things make us feel better and getting some fresh air just improves our lungs, helps our brain and body get going. That can be enough to make us feel a bit brighter.”
Exposure to sunlight can also help balance our internal body clock, which can be affected by the reduced daylight. “Aim to get outside daily, even if it’s just for a brief walk,” says London nutritionist Ms Lily Soutter. Natural light helps to slow down the production of melatonin during the day, which can make us feel less tired and more awake. It also helps improve serotonin levels, which make us feel happier.
Some people benefit from using a daylight lamp, says Tang. Research has shown that a sun lamp is effective in boosting our mood, especially in the morning. It helps to regulate melatonin levels and makes us feel more awake because it mimics daylight.
Having a supportive social circle is important all year round, but we tend to be more outgoing in summer. A 2019 study by OnePoll found that people are 35 per cent more social in summer than they are in winter.
“While healthy relationships can’t guarantee happiness, happiness is rarely found without them,” says Tang. Going out with friends, doing an activity together, having fun or having a conversation gives us a hit of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and that can make us feel better, she says.
Tang suggests avoiding situations where we cannot be authentic. “If you have to put on an act all the time, that can add to your feelings of apathy and depression,” she says. So, try to focus on surrounding yourself with positive people – doctor’s orders.
Research has shown that meditation can alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress-related pain. Studies conducted in partnership with the meditation app Headspace showed that meditating daily can lead to a 29 per cent decrease in depressive symptoms within eight weeks and a 32 per cent reduction in stress symptoms within 30 days.
“Regular meditation creates a dedicated moment and space for us to be more in tune with ourselves, mentally as well as physically,” says Ms Eve Lewis Prieto, director of teaching at Headspace. “A little meditation can do wonders for your mood by clearing your mind and letting you start afresh. It can quiet your anxiety, elevate your attitude and give you the motivation you need, especially to get through winter.
“We can’t eliminate anxiety, sadness or symptoms of depression, but through meditation we can learn to reframe these feelings in a more accepting way. This can be through validating how you’re feeling and being curious about the messages your feelings are giving you.”
If you are new to meditation, Lewis Prieto advises not putting too much pressure on yourself. “As long as we show up to take time for ourselves, we’re doing great,” she says. “Even if we’ve missed several planned sessions and start thinking, ‘I’m not good at this,’ those are just thoughts. We can notice them, let them go and get back to being kind to our mind.”
Exercise plays a huge part in maintaining good spirits, improving our mood, relieving stress, boosting our energy levels and helping our mental and physical health. “Get outside if you can,” says the personal trainer Mr Ty Paul. Going for a walk, a cycle or a run in the daylight will boost your mood. It doesn’t really matter what you do, but be consistent. “The more consistent you are with exercise, the more your confidence will grow and you will notice reduced anxiety and increased self-esteem,” he says.
And have fun with it. “There can be a social aspect to exercise,” says Paul, “whether that is joining a club, a gym, a yoga class or personal training. It’s about getting the right mindset, reframing the activity, perhaps shifting the focus from exercise to engagement with new people.” He adds that finding a training buddy is a good way to stay motivated.
Feeling gloomy, unmotivated and uninspired can be alleviated by boosting our happy hormones. “Art is a great way to do this,” says Tang. You can do it indoors, which is good if the weather’s bad, and you can do it with other people. “If you’re feeling down, it’s a great form of expression to and a way to get out some of those feelings you haven’t been able to discuss,” she says. “People don’t always like to talk about things, but drawing might be more effective in terms of self-expression and letting it all out.
“There’s no right or wrong. You don’t have to be good. By creating something, you get a hit of dopamine and achievement. You’ve just finished something.” Digging out some watercolours at home, taking photographs, joining a pottery class or even crafting something, from knitting to woodwork, can work wonders in helping you feel calm and fulfilled. And if art isn’t your thing, try music, dance, creative writing or any activity that will allow you to let go and get creative.
A healthy and balanced diet is important for keeping our mood light and bright. Soutter advises eating three balanced meals a day and snacking in between to feel your best. “Skipping meals and relying on quick-fix foods can result in blood-sugar dips, which may lead to fatigue, low mood, irritability and anxiety,” she says.
Make sure you’re eating enough carbohydrates. “Carbohydrates are required to transport tryptophan [a building block of protein] across the blood-brain barrier to convert to serotonin,” says Soutter. “A low-carb diet may result in low mood and feeling tired.” She suggests opting for slow-release carbohydrates, such as wholegrains, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat and oats.
And perhaps follow a Mediterranean diet. “A recent trial showed that 32 per cent of people suffering with depression had reduced symptoms after following a Mediterranean diet for 12 weeks,” says Soutter. That means eating healthy fats, such as olive oil, fresh vegetables, fibre and fish.
“Omega-3s are essential fats that nourish the brain and play a positive role in mood, memory and concentration,” says Soutter. Aim for two portions of fish a week, one of which is oily (such as salmon or sardines), or vegan sources of omega-3s, such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Soutter also suggests adding fermented foods to our diet, such as sauerkraut, yoghurt or kimchi. A healthy gut equals a healthy mind.
And lastly, reduce your consumption of refined sugars, alcohol and caffeine, which can all increase anxiety and lower mood, says Soutter.
Activities that make us feel grateful and grounded are paramount in keeping our mood uplifted. “Journalling is great, but a lot of people find it too formal,” Tang says. “They buy a diary and then stop after three days. Instead, I would suggest doing a simple gratitude stretch when you wake up or when you go to bed.” Think of a few people or things you’re grateful for in your life and something you’re looking forward to.
“You might also wish to volunteer somewhere. Volunteering is a form of finding meaning in your life. You’re doing something for other people.” This can make you feel more grounded and fulfilled because you’re giving back to the community.
As the year draws to a close, “Focus on the little wins,” says Tang. “Focus on what you’ve done. Don’t focus on resolutions and to-do lists and what you don’t have. Be grateful for what you’ve got.”
Top up your vitamin D
“Vitamin D is referred to as the sunshine vitamin for good reason,” says Soutter. It is produced in our bodies as sunlight touches our skin. In winter, when we’re not as exposed to it as much, there’s an increased risk of developing a deficiency. “One in six people is vitamin D deficient in the UK and research has shown that low vitamin D is associated with SAD,” says Soutter. Taking a daily 10mcg supplement between October and April can be beneficial.
Speak to someone
If something is troubling you or you’re feeling down, seeking help and sharing your issues, with a therapist or a friend, might make you feel better, safer and more supported. “It’s also worth making sure that your symptoms are not due to something else,” says Tang. “It’s easy to say, ‘It’s cold, I’m feeling down, it’s probably seasonal.’ It could be anything else. If something is unusual to you, it’s important not to write it off as seasonal depression. Speak to your GP or counsellor.”
Check up on your friends and family. “Communicate with the people in your life,” says Lewis Prieto. “See if they’re struggling or if they’ve worked out ways to cope. Even if their ideas don’t work for you, talking about the mid-winter blues can make them feel less overwhelming.”