At this time of year, people generally fall into two categories. There are those merrily kicking up the leaves, joyous to have relegated their flip-flops to the cupboard in favour of boots; sipping on their pumpkin latte, browsing the Halloween costumes and dreaming of the next few months of woolly scarfs, cosy nights in by the fire and Christmas shopping and parties. #IloveAutumn!!!!!
The second category, who have probably already started gritting their teeth just by reading the first paragraph; find the winter months more of a struggle. Winter for them conjures up images of morning mental wrestles with the duvet as they struggle to get out of the bed in the dark. Never feeling warm enough, no matter how many layers you put on, zapped energy and a dread of all the forced jollity and socialising of Christmas; not to mention the shopping! At the very worst it can trigger mood swings, despondency, lethargy and panic. Not very festive at all.
There is a known condition, that is diagnosed as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD); more than just ‘winter blues’ this very-real depressive condition can be debilitating. As well as the aforementioned lethargy and mood swings, sufferers can find themselves feeling disconnected, unable to concentrate, unable to get up in the morning, gaining weight, losing libido or finding existing mental health issues triggered.
SAD is similar in its symptoms to other forms of depression; however it is seasonal rather than long-term, and hasn’t got roots in trauma or life-events. But why do we get it? From an evolutionary perspective, our brains evolved to go into ‘hibernation mode’ every winter as it kept us safe. We needed to keep warm, have extra body fat (for warmth and because food sources are scarcer in winter), conserve energy – both mental and physical – and libidos would go down because there would be less food around to support pregnancy in winter. With shorter days in winter we would sleep a lot more, as before the invention of electric light, we couldn’t actually get a lot done back then.
These days we all strive to live out our 24/7 lifestyles regardless of the seasons, regardless of our Circadian rhythms – the internal biological clocks of all of our organs – and our brains and bodies often find this far too demanding. Staying up late under electric lights and staring at blue screens plays havoc with our production of melatonin, the sleep hormone; a lack of sunlight can contribute to a deficiency in Vitamin D (there are many studies coming out about the mental health effects of Vitamin D deficiency) , and a lack of exercise and social interaction means that Serotonin is also at a yearly low.
So why do some of us thrive in winter and others suffer? A lot of it is down to genetics; traditionally people who are more sensitive to light can suffer more with SAD, and this could be to do with ethnicity and the amount of melanin in your skin. There have also been studies to show that ‘night owls’ suffer more with SAD than the early birds. Women suffer more with SAD, with an estimated 60-90% of SAD sufferers being women. Within this, women who are prone to PMS are also shown to be more prone to SAD; and this is thought to be linked with hormone production. There are also some psychosocial and cognitive factors such as those who have a dislike of winter or darkness and feel very negative about it anyway; those who are prone to depression or find that winter has negative connotations.
So what can be done to help those suffering with SAD, or even just the winter blues? For many years light-lamps have been a go to to help those through the winter months. Some of these are white-light lamps, others ‘dawn simulators’ that help you wake up in the morning – I have one of these and I love it. Some might be prescribed medication, though that is less common these days as SSRIs have been shown to have little effect on depression that is specific to the seasons. Supplements of Vitamin D and L-Tryptophan (the amino acid that promotes melatonin production); also have research available into their possible use for help alleviating SAD.
A few different therapies have been researched in their effectiveness to help with SAD; but CBT and hypnotherapy seem to be the most effective. Hypnotherapy can help by reframing how we approach the winter slump, regulates sleep patterns and helps promote serotonin production. Combined with solution-focused therapy; hypnotherapy can ensure you have a good mental health hygiene routine in place to cope with the worst effects of the cold and dark.
Exercise is also a great way of keeping winter blues at bay, though one may not have the energy or motivation to go for a run or a cycle, or heaven forbid, a swim. Getting out of bed to exercise, no matter how good we know it is for us, can feel impossible if we suffer from SAD. But exercise does help, especially in daylight, so if you can get into the habit of at least wrapping up and going for a walk once a day, it can improve things dramatically. Yoga also has benefits that can help with SAD symptoms; by helping with sleep and stimulating the hypothalamus and pineal glands, which in turn helps with the production of those all-important sleep and wellbeing hormones, and regulating Circadian rhythms.
This Sunday afternoon, the 15th October I am holding a workshop to show you how you can manage your own winter blues; explaining the mechanisms of SAD in greater details, taking you through some delicious SAD-busting yoga and a deep hypnotherapy session to help you navigate the winter months shining. To book a place visit the ticket page.