S.A.D – Adapting To The Seasons

We are suddenly well in to the shorter days and darker evenings of winter. Have you noticed any changes in your mood and/or stress levels?

It is thought that approximately one out of three adults experience symptoms of SAD at this time of year. SAD stands for ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ and usually involves feelings of low energy, low self-esteem and anxiety. For some, symptoms may be more severe and lead to depression (which should be discussed with a GP), however milder symptoms can be managed by recognising the signs and adapting to the changes that this time of year creates.

As the seasons changed this year from autumn to winter, some of my recent trips in the UK inspired me to think about how we can better look after our mental health during these tougher months.

Why do we feel down in winter?

One reason is due to a reduced level of sunlight disrupting our internal body clock – and the actual clocks going back an hour creates further disturbances during this change of season. Both of these can result in altered sleep patterns which can cause problems such as low mood, reduced energy and poorer recovery from injury.

Reduced sunlight can also cause a drop in serotonin levels. Serotonin is a “happy” hormone which is linked to depression when levels are low. It can be helpful to realise that these feelings are normal and are partly a physiological process whilst we adapt to the changes of season.

Whilst by the sea in Plymouth - during an autumn gail force wind and “unusual tidal surges” for this time of year - it dawned on me that nature is rough, tough and unpredictable. As the weather can disrupt your plans (in my case, for paddle boarding), so can the weather change in an instant. The climb down from Ben Nevis in November was a sunny and warm pleasant descent, as the clouds parted and the winds eased. How do we prepare for these changes? We pack our bag full of wet weather gear and layers to add or remove and we prepare for the eventualities ahead. We can of course still get caught off guard and that’s where our positive attitude, training, skill,and preparation help us.

How does this relate to our low mood in winter?

The seasons have changed and we cannot prevent that. But we can adapt and prepare, we can maintain levels of serotonin by doing things that we love, finding new challenges that, whilst perhaps a change from our summer activities, are just as rewarding and effective at targeting our goals.

Exercise is a great way to raise serotonin and energy levels in winter, but you may feel more lethargic to start with. Find an activity that fits in to the daylight hours. This may mean a walk at lunch rather than after work, it could mean a new indoor class instead of running in the dark, or invest in some high vis gear and a good head torch to make you feel safe and confident on the run, walk or cycle home from work.

Look after your body, ensure you get enough sleep by setting your bedtime to re-establish your body clock, and try to get up at a similar time in the morning even at the weekends, using this time to get active or get ahead of the daily tasks. Help the body to recover in the cold by having warm baths, and snuggle up at home to ensure muscles are warm and do not tense up after stressful days.

Control stress levels by adding in some self-care - this could be reading a book, cooking a warming meal, chatting to friends on the phone, exercise, or massage. Lastly, although it is tempting to reach for fatty foods in the winter, it is important to keep energy levels up with vitamins and minerals, maintaining a varied balanced diet.

If low mood persists along with depression, social withdrawal and increased anxiety, it is important to seek further help as there are treatments that can be provided for you via your GP.


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