Mental Health · Mindfulness

How to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder

It’s nearing the end of summer in the UK, with the weather taking a nasty turn. For those of us living in countries with different climatic seasons, it can be difficult to adjust to the colder, darker months. Many of us suffer from the ‘winter blues’ or ‘seasonal affective disorder (with the rather apt acronym of S.A.D.)’. So how can we beat seasonal affective disorder?

Firstly, let’s understand how it feels (I’m also describing this for those of you lucky enough to live in countries with eternal sunshine who are puzzled by the S.A.D. predicament). One day you’re dressed in your favourite colourful summer dress or donning a pair of shorts and sunglasses, listening to the music of summer, drinking cocktails and dancing the bright sunny evenings away, when all of a sudden…BAM! Out comes the metaphorical Ned Stark, declaring that ‘Winter is coming!’ And suddenly rain pours down, the wind blows freezing cold air, the sun disappears, the sky becomes overcast and then a depressing shade of grey. Eternal night sets in. In the morning, you wake up and outside it’s pitch black. You go to work and when you come out of the office, it’s still pitch black. Everyone starts dressing in funeral colours to not look out of keeping with their surroundings. You’ve had zero time to adjust. You feel like you’ve had your soul sucked out of you and to confuse things further for the UK, starting every October, the clock mysteriously turns back an hour. This does blessedly mean an extra hour in bed, but also means it gets darker ‘earlier’.

So back to the original question, what can we do to ‘beat’ the winter blues? Firstly, I feel it’s important to accept that we may not 100% beat them, but we can do a lot to curb its horrible power. I’ll start from the beginning of the day…wake up time!

For years I’d wake up with that morning groan from seeing that white-blue cold autumn/winter’s light fill the room…or worse still in the depths of winter, see no light at all. After a season of grumpiness, my partner bought me an S.A.D. lamp alarm. They used to be so expensive that I hadn’t bothered to look at the price of them for a number of years. But nowadays they can be pretty affordable. You set your alarm and half an hour or so before it goes off, it begins to fill the room with a golden glow like the sunrise. It helps to wake you up naturally and without that immediate groan of ‘Huh? But it’s still dark…it must be nighttime’. The alarm sounds can even be pretty pleasant. Mine is set to summer birds, tweeting away from the treetops. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still horrid to realise it’s gloomy outside, but at least each morning is slightly less painful. I admit that I look longingly at the glow of the lamp, wishing that it was still summer!

Next is the traipse along the corridor to the shower. I like to use a citrus shower gel when it’s dull out and about as the scent is so enlivening. But if you are in need of something warming, there are usually seasonal spicy smelling or black pepper shower gels available. It depends on your needs, but I find that the morning routine is really important. You are wakening your senses and preparing it for the day ahead.

Breakfast. I am going to focus on your morning drink of choice here. If you’re still feeling super sleepy, I do recommend a cold juice or cold glass of water. I tend to always drink a glass of water in the morning to rehydrate after a night’s sleep. It is wonderfully refreshing. In the winter, I follow this with a hot drink to beat away the horrible cold draught in the air. I usually favour a spiced chai or Samahan (which I discovered in Sri Lanka earlier this year). But it’s whatever takes your fancy really. A warm drink can help fight away that horrid feeling of doom and gloom or coldness.

And then…vitamins! Sunlight provides you with a good old dose of vitamin D. So when there’s no sun, our vitamin D intake can be low due to it not being readily derived through foods. I have a handy vitamin D mouth spray that tastes of peppermint. One squirt is enough to top up for the day.

The next part of the day will depend on your location and routine. I catch the train to work. Whilst I used to get a lift to the station from my partner, I now prefer to walk for several reasons. One is that there is such limited sunlight that you have to meet it where you can (even if it is an overcast day!) and two is that it can be such a struggle to wake up in this type of weather that the act of walking and feeling the breeze is a good wake up call. What I highly suggest, however, is that you’re well prepared for the walk or that journey in the car. You should buy clothes that make you feel comfortable and happy. Perhaps even break back in to the colours. Some of my colleagues and friends wear yellow during the winter and it makes me even happier to see them as they break away from the normal autumnal/winter fashions of black and grey or other dark tones. This year I have invested in an extra long warm raincoat and some boots to block out the cold and wet when I take my morning walk. These little things really make a difference. Even if it were only a 5% difference to my happiness, I’d take it as S.A.D. is so intangible that it can be hard to beat or minimise when looking for large and complete ways to battle it.

For those of you who are self employed and work at home, I suggest a morning or lunchtime walk. During winter months it can be all too easy to stay in doors, making the lethargy that is already induced by the dreary weather to kick in harder.

Then onto a morning of work. Whether winter months or summer months, it can be easy to knuckle down and forget to check in with how we’re feeling. I suggest various check-ins throughout the day and also to take a tea, coffee or water break. Nothing is worse than trying to use your brain (particularly when it’s tired or feeling low) without it having adequate hydration.

Lunchtime. It’s simple, but eat warm food! It can be nice to cook yourself lunch to take to work and heat (if you have a microwave available at work). I like to try to make what I call ‘rainbow food’, i.e. trying to incorporate as many colours into a dish as possible. It makes me happy to see all the colours and usually by default ends up being a nutritious dish. Delicious autumn/winter food (in my opinion) are pulses, wild red rice and a whole lot of vegetables – green colours from leafy veg or beans, orange from carrots, yellow from sweetcorn, purple from aubergines, red from tomatoes…the list goes on.

Afternoon. Usually there’s that post-afternoon slump after lunch. If you have a pair of headphones handy, I suggest listening to fun and bright music to lighten the mood. In my case, I usually listen to music to and from work as I can’t focus with music on, but at any time of the day you can use music as a pick-me-up. My ‘beat the blues’ music of choice is mexican rock music! Something about the latin beats and the party mode and surge of energy makes me feel very happy. Sometimes I even feel like getting up and dancing!

Journeying home is a good time to kick back and take stock of the day and begin to wind down. Usually by this time it’s already dark and you can feel rather sleepy. I usually embrace this natural phenomena from the autumn/winter months and use the time to begin to prepare me for a relaxing evening and eventual much needed sleep.

Back home and onto dinner. If you live with friends and family or housemates, use it as time to engage, crack jokes and watch comedies. Goodness knows we always need a laugh in our lives and if there can be one good thing about S.A.D., it’s that it gives us a perfect reason (not that you need one) to connect and laugh. If you live alone, why not phone a friend?

And finally on to bedtime. I don’t know about anyone else, but when it’s this dark and gloomy, getting to sleep is not an issue (only getting up is!). Don your fluffiest pyjamas and a warm pair of socks. For extra warmth and comfort, invest in a micro-fleece and swaddle yourself in it. Do your best Linus impression (for Charlie Brown and Snoopy fans).

So, who’s up for the challenge? Ready to say goodbye to S.A.D. and hello to happiness? 🙂

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