As our days plunge into darkness earlier than anticipated, we now notice the deficit of what once was a diet of natural light. This seasonal transition may initially feel like a challenging one as we’re not quite ready to part ways with the long-standing summer nights. However, for 3-6 million Americans - and a notably higher amount of people in the United Kingdom - the reminder that winter is coming is much more intense than a mere sense of feeling unprepared and uncomfortable.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the professional term for the commonly known "winter blues," encompasses symptoms that essentially affect your mindset and well-being. According to the NHS, indications of SAD include the constant feeling of depletion, loss of interest in everyday activities, bursts of worthlessness and guilt, lack of energy, and feeling lethargic.
Dr Chris George, GP, TV presenter, and lifestyle medicine expert, defines SAD as a "well-recognized medical condition and defined by a set of strict criteria published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (DSM IV)." He adds, "We know that there are several risk factors for the development of SAD this includes: vulnerability to stress of an individual, northern latitudes and even having a first degree relative with depression.”
As it stands, the cause of SAD has not yet been identified, but there are consistent theories linking back to lack of sunlight and vitamin D. As SAD is considered a "newer concept," it is often disregarded and accounted as a “lighter form of depression.” According to AO, seasonal affective disorder is particularly prominent in millennials with 59 percent of 25-34 years old having experienced symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and a significant 7 in 10 of the same age group saying they wouldn’t rule out moving overseas.
The first step to combat SAD is to recognize and acknowledge that you may be experiencing the symptoms. With a little support and will-power, these mindful methods can help alleviate and improve your current state of well-being.
Engage in physical exercise
I feel your eye roll. You may feel slightly desensitized to the idea that exercise is the “cure” for what feels like everything, but there is a catalogue of scientific evidence to back it up.
As Dr. Chris George explains, “the hypothesis underpinning SAD is complex and thought to be related to a variation in daylight hours, circadian rhythm (also called our sleep wake cycle) and neurotransmitter dysfunction in the brain. A number of studies have now suggested that exercise can indeed be a useful and effective way to combat S.A.D. although the exact mechanism is not fully understood. The most likely theory is that the mood enhancing effects of physical activity impact our circadian rhythms thereby helping us to combat SAD.”
Through exercise, your body releases endorphins. This hormone reaps the benefits for your well-being as a productive way to manage stress levels. Endorphins assist in relieving pain and improving sleep while also replenishing energy levels and reducing anxiety. While all forms of exercise are beneficial, low impact activities such as walking, yoga, and dancing are highly recommended. An added bonus: Going outside exposes you to more natural light which is good for the body, mind, and spirit.
Ignite the power of light therapy
Seeing as to how SAD has ties with lack of sunlight, light therapy serves as a temporary alternative to make up for this deficit. The bright light sends signals to the brain to affect the chemical and hormone levels of the sufferer to essentially boost their mood.
Although not clinically proven, natural light simulation can be acquired through portable lamps that can be placed on your office desk. Qualifications for SAD lamps require having a minimum of 2,500 lux - the higher the number, the greater the effect in a shorter amount of time.
Richard Maule, a high performance NLP and hypnosis life coach, has a history experiencing SAD symptoms but prompts people to evaluate other areas of their lives before medicalizing the way they feel.
“Sometimes the feelings we have aren't an existential crisis," he explains. "First, check you are getting all the basic requirements your body needs; sleep, food, water and nutrients, before delving headfirst into a psychoanalysis of your mind and why you feel sad. Sometimes the answer is simpler.”
Richard used light therapy to alleviate some of his symptoms. “Your skin hosts a type of cholesterol that functions as a precursor to vitamin D," he adds. "When this compound is exposed sunlight, it becomes vitamin D. S.A.D. lamps can mimic the same light UV-B radiation as the sun emits. In fact, sun-derived vitamin D may circulate for twice if vitamin D from food or supplements.”
Find comfort in social activities
It can be easier to find comfort in solitude by hibernating when experiencing SAD symptoms, but cutting connections can intensify the feeling of isolation. It's important to try and push through, dedicating some of your time to engaging with friends and family. Seasonal affective disorder is more common than we think, and the likelihood that someone you know may also be going through a similar situation is higher than you probably think.
Use apps to your advantage
Your phone can act as a personal mindfulness coach. Despite not being a replacement for professional help, apps are an invaluable source of information and guidance towards a more positive wellbeing. Most are free to use, easy to navigate and help to eliminate social stigmas. To see which app is best suited for you, revisit our roundup of the 20 best apps for your mental health.
Practice meditation and reiki
Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Center, says that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment. Implementing meditation and breathing techniques into your daily routine can mitigate emotions as they help train your brain to sustain focus on the present moment when negative thoughts and symptoms intrude.
There’s an array of meditation techniques that cater to each individual practitioner. For instance, mindfulness meditation encourages acknowledgement of thoughts and feelings without judgement with the sole intent to create awareness of the wandering mental notes. Reiki master Kristy Lomas adds, “It is thought that people with SAD have lower levels of the brain chemical serotonin produced during the winter months and studies have shown that Serotonin levels are heightened through Meditation.
Oftentimes when most people visualize meditation, Buddhists sitting crossed legged and chanting "OM" come to mind. In reality, there are many different types of meditation. And it's often easy to get caught up in the thought process "am I doing it right.”
The simple and most efficient introduction to meditation can be achieved through following these three simple steps:
1. Find a quiet spot and sit in a comfortable position with legs crossed and palms resting upwards on your knees.
2. Breath freely, focusing on every inhale and exhale you take and how your body feels. If you prefer a more controlled breathing technique for enhanced relaxation, breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds before exhaling.
3. Do this for 5-10 minutes each day until you feel comfortable to increase meditation time or introducing new techniques.
Reiki is also explored as a holistic approach to combating SAD. It’s essentially a form of energy healing by transferring negativity away from the body. Kristy states it's important to "find the inner stillness we all crave in the hectic world we live in. Our brains need a thorough rest, so we really need to switch off even if it’s for 10-15 minutes a day. Reiki helps in bringing you back to balance while improving energy levels and sleep intake.”
Take a break and dedicate time for "self-care"
If the opportunity to take an afternoon off arises, don't feel guilty for taking up the offer. It's vital that you carve out a small portion time fully dedicated to yourself. It can be as simple as a lowkey solo activity such as a Baby Foot mask or booking a weekend trip out of town with close friends. Either way, your spirits will be subconsciously lifted as you are reminded that your current mind state is temporary.
Speak to a professional
If your symptoms intensify beyond your control, please visit a professional to seek further advice. Understandably, your feelings can be difficult to articulate. Mental health organization Mind's Find the Words piece provides free support and guidance on how to approach your mental health issue upon visiting your GP.