Like the rest of Britain I’ve spent the last week weeks commuting to work in the pitch black and complaining about the sudden drop in temperature. It’s easy to see how so many of us can start to get a little down in December. As soon as the schools go back and the nights start to draw in, we start missing the long summer evenings and notice that we’re more sluggish than we were just a few weeks ago. I find it hard to stay calm as Christmas approaches, and there are few of us that are unaffected by the relentless greyness.
It’s not surprising to learn that one in three people will be affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder – or SAD – and those winter blues become a debilitating depressive illness. Usually diagnosed after two years of more severe symptoms, SAD is far more than cravings for stodgy food, sluggishness, and wishing winter would hurry up and end.
If you simply can’t get out of bed, go to work or go about your daily life then there’s a good chance that your suffering from SAD rather than just ordinary winter blues. This kind of specific winter depression is caused by sensitivity to low daylight levels and the disruption to our body clock. Our brains work overtime to produce melatonin, which regulates sleep patterns and has also been closely linked to depression. It’s also a form of depression which is more or less exclusive to the Northern Hemisphere – for example only around 1% of people in cities closer to the equator suffer from SAD.
Our body clocks are thrown out of sync by the delay in sunrise, so the obvious solution is to get as much sunlight as possible – not easy in winter without jetting off for a holiday with better weather. If only NHS prescriptions included a week in the Maldives, right? Because it’s cold, we’re also less likely to be outside as much as we are in warmer months, meaning that our daylight exposure is even less.
The best plan is to get outside as early in the day as possible to make the most of what light there is. Indoor lighting is completely ineffective, but artificial light boxes – often marketed as SAD lamps – can be extremely beneficial. These have special fluorescent tubes which mimic sunlight, and are equally useful for those who just have the winter blues. Just half an hour early in the day can trick the body into thinking it’s Spring, and can break the winter depression cycle. A quick trip to the seaside might also help; research shows that the negative ions which are in higher quantities close to crashing waves may be beneficial in lifting depression.
It’s also important to keep an eye on your general health through the winter months, as symptoms you shouldn’t ignore are easy to write off as ‘just the winter blues’. If you’re worried and your symptoms aren’t normal during the colder weather, then ask your GP to refer you to the Chelsea Outpatient Centre for further investigation. Many conditions can also become much worse over the winter months, so it’s equally sensible to review treatment and care plans throughout the year to make sure that you can continue to enjoy life, whatever the weather.
If you find your anxiety is heightened over the festive period you might want to read this post on how to minimise symptoms and take care of yourself over the busy holiday season.