Winter Blues? Learn about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

It’s easy to feel de-energised at this time of year. Morning starts later and before we know it, the afternoon is closing in and darkness has begun to fall all over again. This is especially so once the clocks have gone back an hour and the benefit of an extra hour’s sleep that weekend has long since melted away.

Many people manage the transition from summer to winter time fairly seamlessly but for others there is a lingering feeling of ‘Winter Blues’. In more extreme cases this is known as SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder, and can be accompanied by feelings of sadness, despair, a lack of energy and enthusiasm, social withdrawal and sometimes also a desire for sweet or carbohydrate rich foods (bread,pasta).

As with many things, it is often helpful to understand the underlying causes and in the case of Winter Blues or SAD, this is connected with our circadian rhythm and how this goes ‘out of synch’ during this time of the year.

Our bodies are governed by a network of tiny, coordinated, biological clocks which are responsible for our circadian rhythm, a 24 hour pattern of physical, mental and behavioural changes that affect sleep, body temperature, appetite and metabolism. Circadian rhythms are common to most living things including animals and plants.

When we put our clocks back an hour in the winter, we throw this rhythm out of alignment and it takes a little time for it to re-adjust and until then we can feel a bit disorientated or bleary. The same thing happens when we move quickly through time zones during air travel and it is experienced then as jet lag. While everything re-adjusts and re-aligns it often takes a few days to recover.

What cues our circadian rhythm is daylight. Daylight activates our body clock and tells us to wake up and become alert and darkness cues the release of melatonin in our brains which makes us feel sleepy in the evenings. During the winter months in Ireland, daylight does not occur until approximately 4 hours later than it does in mid Summer. It is this seasonal difference that disrupts our circadian rhythm and puts it out of sync with our other internal body clocks. While all of our other day to day routines and schedules continue as normal, our body is not getting the daylight signal that we should be up and awake in the morning and the darkness signals which make us sleepy are kicking in too early in the evenings. The effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder are more pronounced the farther north from the equator we live as daylight hours are much shorter there.

A further contributing factor is that during our winter months, many people have gone to work by the time the sun rises and remain there until after the sun sets. Also as it’s is often cold or wet, we can feel reluctant to venture outdoors during the day. In these ways we are deprived of the natural reinforcers of our circadian rhythms.

The good news is however that there are other ways to keep deal with this seasonal slump in our energy and to support our wellbeing during the dark winter months.  

Here are some of the things we can do to beat the Winter Blues:

  1. Get as much exposure to natural light as possible. As soon as daylight occurs, open the curtains and let the light in. If you can, get out for a walk in the early morning light. The angle of the sun affects how light enters our eyes through our retina and morning light is particularly effective. This helps to keep our bodies in a regular cycle and one more closely aligned to Springtime and can alleviate depressive symptoms. Remember that even while being outdoors on a cloudy or overcast day, you will benefit from exposure to sunlight. At weekends while we may be tempted to stay in bed and sleep off our weariness, we will miss the potential benefit of these important sunlight hours, especially if we have been indoors during daylight hours all week.
  1. Maintain your other routines and schedules such as getting up times, mealtimes, bedtimes and activity schedules. This will help reinforce circadian and other body rhythms.
  1. Maintain your physical activity. Exercise encourages the natural release of endorphins which will help to make you feel happier and ensure restful night’s sleep.
  1. Be careful with sugar. Some people crave sweet or starchy food during winter and believe if gives them a much needed energy boost. The effect however, is short term and will cause an energy slump later leaving. It can also create other health problems due to risks of diabetes, unwanted weight gain etc. Balance any craving for carbohydrates with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.

5 Plan activities ahead of time. Remember Winter doesn’t last forever and having something to look forward to or focus on is always uplifting. Stick with your hobbies or take up a new one. You will meet new friends and have something interesting and fun in your weekly routine.

6 Keep in touch with friends and family. Socialising is good for your mental health and helps to keep Winter Blues at bay. Even if it takes a effort, try to get out and see friends and family regularly or have people around to keep in touch and maintain connections.

7. If you find the symptoms of Winter Blues or SAD or difficult to bear you may find it helpful to talk to a Counsellor or Psychotherapist who can help support you through this period until you feel better.  

But also remember that as soon as the Winter Solstice on 21st of December has passed, the days begin to lengthen again and with it the symptoms of Winter Blues and SAD will ease and will eventually pass.

See our FIND A THERAPIST page if you feel you would benefit from professional help on this or any other issue causing emotional distress

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