Say No to Winter Blues
For many, the arrival of the colder season hails the struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. For me, it often brings an extra need to manage my mood against more frequent grey skies, soggy drizzle, cold flat waiting to be heated. It’s when extra tea and coffee doses to keep me warm within, not to mention a great deal more care and love from those around me can really help. But, what to do when those around us are affected by SAD? This article explains how to cope with or lessen the impact of SAD.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a fancy term for winter blues: a condition when someone becomes low in mood and energy during the colder months. According to the NHS website, winter blues symptoms include:
- a persistent low mood
- a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities including sex
- being easily irritable
- feelings of despair, guilt, and worthlessness
- feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
- sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning or feeling you still need more sleep
- craving foods and putting on extra weight
One way to understand SAD is as a recurrent seasonal depression. It’s important to note that the severity of SAD varies with some people being quite crippled by it and others simply dipping a little. What’s worth noting is that the condition is four times more likely to happen in women (see the above research paper by Sherri Melrose). In my experience, SAD amplifies whatever vulnerability factors one has to start with, which is why for many, the best answer can be to seek therapy or address life’s key challenges. Sometimes, those challenges can be to do with one’s mindset and core beliefs.
Also, it’s important to acknowledge that if you’re experiencing SAD, people in your life will also be affected by your experience. Those effects can be complex, deeply distressing and damaging to relationships.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The cause of SAD is unclear. The theory behind it is that lack of sunlight may affect the hypothalamus which leads to lower serotonin levels – the happy hormone. Changes in the light cycle are also shown to play havoc with the circadian rhythm.
Winter blues seems to be both genetically and environmentally caused. In some cases, it can run in families but those who were born and raised in warm countries seem to suffer from it worse than natives. But to conclude the causes of SAD are all biological or to do with brain chemistry would be wrong. Quite often there is plenty in our lives that is simply not right. Less light and sunshine simply make this more evident.
I left sunny California many years ago. That said, I have been raised on regular seasonal cycles of New York’s finest weather, including massive snow blizzards that bring the city to a halt and give kids extra days off from school. And prior to this, in Poland where winter can be very cold, evenings just as dark, and yet where there is true magic and joy to every season. I thought I was immune. But apparently not. However, what I have discovered is that in my case, what causes the symptoms of SAD is being around people who suffer from it.
If you read my blogs you will know that I’m interested in practical solutions. Hence below are eight practical ideas to help you cope.
8 Top Tips to reduce the severity of SAD and beat the Winter Blues
1: Learn about yourself with a helpful diagnostic
There is a free and simple diagnostic called the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire (SPAQ) which was developed by Dr. Rosenthal and colleagues in 1984 that does not require any training and can be self-administered. You can find it here.
While it will take about 20min to complete, the questionnaire will highlight how the seasons may be affecting you or those you love. If you complete it, please leave us a comment below in terms of what you found in general terms and whether it was helpful.
Here are two aspects of it that I especially like: 1. The daily mood log and 2. The core belief worksheet.
2. Tunes – Give me them tunes…
Music is a proven way to cut straight past the higher cortical areas and how they may be engaged in rumination that can bring the mood down and allow the physical body to be a critical aid through movement.
I’ve discovered that to make me want to do 10 burpees I need some upbeat motivating music! But work for example suits a mixture of smooth jazz or gentle Reggae. I regularly surf Spotify to locate tunes for my various music lists.
Now I have an anti-SAD playlist. The top 2 tracks are Milk and Honey by Prince Fatty and Into the wilderness by Burning Hearts but if I need a bit more punch I turn to Missy Elliott. On our last retreat, we discovered people found it a lot easier to meet each other to Night Fever by Bee Gees. I bet you’re not surprised. So what’s your go-to tune that put you in a good mood?
3: Keep cozy and blast yourself with plenty of fresh air
What seems to work so brilliantly in summer is not having to wear much and the feeling of a breeze on the skin. To recapture the same sense, I recommend investing in cozy, comfortable clothing made from natural, organic fibers that keep you warm while allowing your skin to breathe. Such fabrics also tend to make us feel good.
The pandemic has made wearing sporty and casual clothes more acceptable which means you can hit those burpees, push-ups, and energizing yoga pose anytime you feel like it. Then, set an alarm and zap yourself with cold, crisp air just long enough to feel that invigorating cool feeling. Amazing!
There are also a number of further benefits to following this tip: your immune system getting stimulated, your heart rate lowering and your brain getting an extra oxygen boost as you gasp for air. Switching your hot shower to a cold setting does the same. Super refreshing. Consider your day structure and how you can make this happen for you.
4: Early rise and low-intensity blue-enriched white light
If you suffer from SAD getting up early to seize the day is a must. I know it’s counterintuitive as your body has still not caught up with the weather change and the cold makes a cozy bed extra inviting. Plus it’s dark as you wake up and your first visible cue is – it’s night, except it isn’t.
This is where a little automatic light switch lamp that uses low-intensity blue-enriched white light will come in handy. Set it so that your bedroom lights come on at your chosen wake-up time. It beats any alarm clock and allows your body to do the rest naturally. Once you’re up, blast your bathroom, the kitchen with full lights too. It may be dark outside but make your space feel like daytime. This meta-level study shows that dawn simulation and bright light therapy are effective ways of treating SAD and work as well as antidepressant drugs.
5: Stretching and stepping up exercise
This is a double whammy because you will feel good from getting stronger and be able to enjoy all those Christmas mince pies, extra cocktails and turkey stuffing guilt-free. I’m a real fan of Emi Wong Youtube videos for short but effective workouts.
Plus I can’t wait for the day when I can do the one-legged Russian squat my father used to show off in his thirties. For a gentler day, I do aim for three sun salutations or 15min of stretching.
For those of you who, like me, have an overactive immune system – your benefits are even bigger! Stretching has been shown scientifically to reduce inflammation which is linked with cancer and a number of neurodegenerative diseases.
6: Bring back to life your favorite memory or activity from the summer!
One of my favorite things from my post-pandemic holiday was rediscovering the taste of simple food and also the taste of Hendrick’s Gin tonic with dry rose petals and fresh cucumber. It just so happens that Picture House in London makes a delicious version but I can also make one at home. One sip and I am literally transported to a sandy beach and ocean waves of Caparica.
So while everyone else is sipping heady reds this time of year, I’m lost in the sparkle of Fever Tree Tonic and priceless friendships. Discipline training means stopping at 1 cocktail to cook something tasty for my family. What simple practices help you feel happy? Can you share them with those you love?
7: Laughter – I mean the out-loud kind
Humour is amazing. Did you know that when we laugh we can’t be stressed or feel anxious at the same time? I like stand-up comedy as let’s face it there are just so many ways to see life and our world with a cheeky laugh to help us show up to the serious issues with more energy and resources.
Can you find some good laughs in a Netflix series although I recommend keeping to small doses say one episode – not always easy in practice. Here are a few of my favorites from last year:
- The Kominsky Method with Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin. The two characters are dealing with the fear of death and other daily life trials that can make one sad. They succeed with humor and friendship. The show has given me a whole new and lighter perspective on life.
- Atypical for the way it depicts neurodiversity and a whole set of very typical family challenges.
- Arrested development
- Sex education and many more according to your personal taste.
8: And the fail-proof British pick me up – a cuppa char and a chat
Whatever your brew, a cup of tea or coffee drank mindfully and enjoyed to the fullest is a true pick-me-up booster. Perfect 10min breaks to way too much home working since the pandemic or a good reason to head out to a local coffee shop.
Conversations with your loved ones about how you’re being affected and what you need in terms of practical help. Often I find that while clients find the discipline to still put in a good performance at work, this often comes at a cost to their personal and most meaningful relationships. The damage can be big here and costs most regrettable. But dialogue and teamwork are very helpful. Check out our most downloaded article series on how to cultivate healthy emotional connections.
Need Help to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder?
1. Develop a good habit with our 14-Day Habit Builder practical learning
If you’d like to create quick results in any area of your life, our 14 Day Habit Builder challenge can help! This self-guided online course will give you the structure using our proven formula to get you to do what you want and need and build genuine motivation as you move forward. See why people like it!
2. Learn to build a life on healthy foundations
As winter often means more time indoors, why not consider taking a longer personal development journey to explore and strengthen how your life works with our powerful Grid framework?
3. Join our Goal Getter Bootcamp experiment
Since the pandemic, we run a 12-month free Goal Getter course to support everyone who wants to achieve tangible results move forward in them. Find out more here.
4. Ready to create on healthy terms?
Try our online Da Vinci program which is designed to help you connect with the artist within on the foundations of balance, creativity and connection. In the comfort of your home and favorite device, you could be developing an approach to life and work that can really transform how you feel for the long-term. Because of how the course is put together, you can achieve great results from the moment you start in less than 2 hours per month.
Here’s what one of our Alumni had to say about it:
The Da Vinci journey has been interesting. I liked the Tutorial videos the best. As a result of the programme I have become more accepting of myself and others and I realize that we are all doing our best. Made up as we are of body, heart, mind, and spirit we are often conflicted and realizing this has been both a release and an incentive to think, feel and act more holistically.Pam
5. Take 30 Days to overhaul your life, work, self-care and career
We also have the best-selling 30-day goal setting course in collaboration with Psychologies Magazine. This 30-day programme helps you create your best life, work, career and how you feel on the inside through short, practical daily missions. Who said wait to ask your boss for that raise. Never wait but get your intel first. This and many other useful tasks will really stretch you in this short course.
A highly practical way to start right now…
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Whatever you do, don’t be sad. Be glad instead.
You’re alive. You’re here. Life has much magic. Too often we can forget to see it and share it with those we love.
So get out there and make time count!