Don't let Seasonal Affective Disorder get you down
This article was adapted for Planet Mindful
What is SAD
“Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD) is a form of depression associated with the winter months as the outside changes taken an effect on our brain chemistry – less sunlight means less serotonin which impacts the regulation of our bodily functions; more melatonin (produced at night) may make us sleepy).
Why is light so important to our bodies?:
On average, a person’s circadian rhythm – colloquially the “internal body clock” – naturally rises and falls in energy within a 24 hour period. However this responds very well to light – especially natural light. If it is dark then our brain signals to release melatonin which makes us sleepy – hence why when a flight crosses time zones the aeroplane lights are dimmed or brightened to try and get your body as adjusted as possible to your arrival time. When there is light – especially natural light – the melatonin stops. This means that if you wake with natural daylight outside, it can be difficult to return to sleep because your internal processes are already signalling that it is time to rise.
Managing the symptoms of SAD
-Consider a “SAD Lamp”. SAD lamps mimic natural sunlight and people report that spending 30 minutes (or as directed) in their glow can make them feel more positive.
-Always make time offline!
Switch off, go out into the garden, or at least open a window. Get some time away from the glare of the screen (and all the lighting you might be using to work your “on camera” look). Take a moment to be informally mindful:
- Listen to the birds
- Feel the warmth of the sun (when it’s out)
- Breathe deeply
- Read (a book rather than a download), Sing, Draw – do something away from a screen
- Enjoy a cup of tea (or your choice of beverage) – really enjoy it
- Use an eye mask to get some rest.
Not only is too much time online associated with lower self esteem and higher feelings of depression, the light of the computer can be overly stimulating, bringing about a sense of anxiety – on top of the content you are reading or working with.
Humans are also biophilic, we are drawn to nature and research shows it can give our health a boost – walking through a pine forest can have rejuvenating effects, as well as enable some peace of mind and extra oxygenation of the brain, but simply looking at nature can help people heal faster than looking only at concrete or internal walls...plus, sometimes simply admiring the vastness of our surroundings can put our issues into perspective, clearing the headspace we need in order to better manage them.
-Maintain the routines you have in place – even when it’s darker!
If you have already got into a healthy routine, then be aware of things you might need to do to enable you to continue that healthy practice. If you don’t like jogging in the morning as it gets darker consider investing in a light, or whether seasonal gym membership might be an option…prepare to maintain your health in advance.
The benefits of keeping active and social in the winter months
Exercise stimulates the production of “happy hormones” and “neurotransmitters” eg:
1. DOPAMINE: Also known as the "feel good" hormone - it is a part of our brain's "reward system". Dopamine is what "fires" when we achieve something, for example a new goal in your exercise routine.
2. SEROTONIN: This is both a hormone and neurotransmtitter which helps regulate our mood, our sleep and even our appetite and digestion (all three of which will in turn affect our overall wellbeing - we tend to "feel better" after a good night's sleep; or when we haven't been "comfort eating") – and this can be generated by exercising especially outdoors in the sun.
3. ENDORPHINS: Known as "nature's pain relief" and are produced in response to stress or discomfort - and increase when we are engaged in exercise and other activities that we enjoy.
4. ENDOCANNABINOIDS: These produce a state of "bliss", sometimes also known as the "runner's high" after exercising "in the zone".
5. GABA: An inhibitory molecule which can slow down the firing of neurons in turn creating a sense of calm – this can be produced by yoga or meditation.
The importance of boosting our happy hormones is taking advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity – which is that the circuitry and chemical balance of the brain can change for the better when we participate in exercise (or other wellbeing pursuit regularly).
Further, exercise encourages more oxygen to reach the back of the brain, which is beneficial for our mental health, and this can be boosted if we are also stimulating our brain through low level concentration eg on a podcast. Therefore, staying active can have additional wellbeing boosts – beyond weight maintenance and joint mobility.
Exercise can also be something to do with friends. Social contact can stimulate the production of oxytocin the bonding hormone, which in turn can help us feel good. While there may be fewer opportunities to go out, spending quality time in the company of loved ones can boost our mood, and our relationship with them!
It can benefit us to think about all the things we might see in winter which are not easily found – or perhaps have less impact in summer:
- Pretty lights
- Going for a walk and enjoying the new sounds and smells of winter – the crunch of grass, the crackle of the bonfire.
- Snuggling up in warm clothing
Appreciation gives us something to look forward to, and the sense of appreciation also brings benefits to our mental and emotional health:
i. Appreciation magnifies positive emotions which can energise us.
ii. Appreciation blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret—emotions that can destroy our happiness. This makes sense: You cannot feel fully envious and appreciative at the same time.
iii. Appreciative people have a higher sense of self-worth. Once you start to recognize the contributions to your life, you may, in turn begin to recognise that you contribute positively too.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt