Out of all seasons, we seem to resist winter the most. We embrace spring for its promises of fresh starts and simply cannot wait for summer. But finding someone who is counting the days to when the sun sets sooner is an impossible task. Thankfully autumn still has some gifts of colour therapy to feast our eyes on, but we have all experienced those winter blues as soon as the last leaf drops.
Known as the Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, this condition is more than just a spell of bad moods. The shrinking light levels of the winter months have a direct influence on the hormones responsible for our circadian rhythms and the associated feelings of wakefulness and sleepiness.
Noticed that lack of motivation as thick itchy jumpers push out floating floral dresses in your wardrobe? Cannot find satisfaction in the activities that brought you joy just a month ago? Or perhaps you are feeling more reluctant to socialise? Many of those experiencing SAD also start craving more carbohydrates and snacks, which leads to a vicious cycle as your scales deliver the bad news.
Whether it is low mood, irritability or oversleeping, all of these symptoms point to the onset of winter depression, experienced yearly by millions of people around the world. So, what can you do to escape SAD’s heavy chilly paw on your back as the winter months kick in? Acceptance of the changing seasons and the slower pace of life that comes with it are key, but it is easier said than done. We are going to share some effective practices and tips to help you make the most of your hibernation period.
Let there be light
Once the clocks go back, there is no escaping from the fact that the sun will begin to set earlier. And it does not help if oversleeping is one of your SAD symptoms, meaning that there is even less light left for you to soak up in a day. But all is not lost!
Make it your priority to get as much natural sunlight as you can. Even better – combine it with your daily exercise. Baby steps can get you a long way, so a brisk walk or just 20 minutes in the sun will do. Not only does light regulate the production of our sleep hormones but it is also closely linked to the production of our happiness hormone serotonin, which is why there is such a strong link between sunlight and our overall mood and energy.
Truth be told, it is not every day that we get the benefits of full-blown sunshine. But luckily there are a number of supplementary measures that can be used on their own or alongside natural light exposure. Light therapy is now a medically recommended solution and some brands like Lumie have been quick to jump on board, providing medically certified light devices targeting SAD symptoms.
As a member of the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms, Lumie are committed to promoting research and expertise around the biological effects of light. This means that their devices had to pass rigorous clinical trials before hitting the market. Playfully titled Vitamin L, their most popular light diffuser might look like a humble A4 sheet of paper at first glance but is remarkably mighty, emitting 10,000 lux at a distance of 16 cm. Lumie recommends a daily 30–60-minute treatment with some impressive results. No wonder some users refer to it as the “happy lamp”!
Lumie or not, adding more light to your winter home will no doubt bring heaps of benefits to your mood. Be it warm-coloured fairy lights or a burst of brightly coloured paint on your office wall, tricking our brains into light and colour stimulation is key.
Cold showers: counterintuitive but effective!
Perhaps not the most obvious advice but, in our opinion, it is worth a shot. Or should we say a shower? Many Scandinavian countries swear by cold water immersion and the winter months are no exception! The tradition of bathing in icy waters has no doubt helped generations of Norwegians, Swedes and Danes to stay lively and connected to their communities during the darker time of the year. Many office workers and families take a regular dip in icy sea waters as cold as 2°C between November and April. It is telling that these countries lead as the happiest nations year after year.
The benefits of cold water on our nervous system are still a relatively new field of research and, admittedly, much of the evidence is anecdotal. However, existing studies do point to the ability of cold immersion to improve blood circulation, immune system functioning and endorphin production in the brain, which sounds like a perfect way to get out of that stagnant state of winter blues. And with all the colds and flus circulating in the colder months, the proven benefits for our immune system would no doubt come in handy.
According to NICE, Seasonal Affective Disorder should be treated like any other form of depression. Although it is perhaps not something that NICE spokespeople would put forward as a solution, cold showers certainly sound like a promising option given this existing link. A 2008 study on the impact of hydrotherapy on depression demonstrated an improvement in the participants’ symptoms after several weeks of 2–3-minute sessions of cold showers one or two times a day.
Some athletes have sworn by ice baths for years as a means of reducing inflammation in the muscles after strenuous exercise. Cold water causes our blood vessels to constrict and therefore takes away swelling and inflammation. While we are by no means inviting you to go as far as to plant your already SADing self in a bathtub full of icicles, the effect of cold water in any shape or form should hopefully encourage you to try it out on your own terms. Many countries also have a great culture of open water swimming all year around.
Do be cautious! Cold immersion directly affects your heart rate, blood pressure and circulation. Listen to your own body and always talk to your doctor first, if you feel unsure that this is for you.
When traditional treatments fail, ecotherapy or “green care”, as it’s sometimes known, can step in. A therapeutic treatment which involves outdoor activities in nature, it is a great way to get in in synch with the seasons. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by nature? Even on the greyest day, it never fails to lift our spirits. Even better if you are doing it in a group of other people and connect over a common task.
Activities range from working on a farm, looking after animals, basket weaving, conservation work or walking. Some therapies also involve cognitive behavioural therapy and more formal approaches, but the overall idea is to have some fresh air, structure and social engagement. A great way to add a sense of purpose and embrace nature!
And now to the culprit of all problems: stress. The said cold showers are also thought to reduce cortisol levels, but what else can you do?
Our modern lifestyles put an immense pressure on our minds to stay productive and motivated. What if you were given a much-needed sabbatical from hyper-productivity and worrying? Well, isn’t that why winter exists? A time to step back and recalibrate as our natural energy flow slows down. So, rather than trying to keep up with the pulsating rhythm of the warmer months and feeling like a victim of the season, try focusing more on your self-care and the reduced hum of distractions in your life. It is about adjusting your expectations and therefore causing yourself to stress less. And with perhaps less outdoor activities going on, it is a perfect time to take stock, pick up that old journaling practice and reassess with a warm cuppa.
Whatever you choose, it is important to find rituals which feel in synch with each season. Perhaps you will experiment with making pickles or jams to stock up for winter. Or maybe you will take up a new winding down hobby such as knitting or whittling. It might not be a season for healthy cold salads, but it is certainly one for glorious warming stews and soups. Just tweak your lifestyle to make yourself comfortable and reflect on the year gone by.