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Dark nights, winter blues and SAD

When the clock is going back, the days get shorter, and the darkness enfolds us as we move closer to winter.  No longer does the light come into our eyes at 5am and wake us.  Most mornings we stay sleepy, or feel like our sleep was rudely interrupted when our alarms go off.  Why, if the actual number of hours in the day has not changed, do we feel heavier, slower and more lethargic as we move towards the shortest days of the year?  It takes more energy to do what we normally do, when it is dark – we are designed to thrive in the light. 

It is not uncommon for your mood to be affected by the changing seasons and weather, or to have times of the year when you feel more or less comfortable. However, if your feelings are interfering with your everyday life then it could be a sign that you need to examine your mental health and seek further advice and help.

Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. SAD is sometimes known as "winter depression" because the symptoms are usually more apparent and more severe during the winter. A few people with SAD may have symptoms during the summer and feel better during the winter.

Symptoms of SAD can include:

  • a persistent low mood
  • a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • irritability
  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
  • sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood but it’s often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days. Restrictions due to Covid-19 combined with fewer people travelling for work purposes mean that there is an increased risk of SAD at the moment.

Treatments for SAD can include changing your lifestyle to ensure maximum exposure to natural sunlight, light therapy, talking therapies such as counselling or medication. If you are concerned about SAD or depression, or are finding things hard to cope with, please consult your GP.

There are a number of simple things you can try that may help improve your symptoms, including:

  • try to get as much natural sunlight as possible – even a brief lunchtime walk can be beneficial
  • make your work and home environments as light and airy as possible
  • sit near windows when you're indoors
  • take plenty of regular exercise, particularly outdoors and in daylight
  • eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • if possible, avoid stressful situations and take steps to manage stress
  • it can also help to talk to family and friends about how you’re feeling

Useful links

Dark nights – how to cope as the days get shorter

The clock is going back, the days are getting shorter, the darkness enfolds us as we move closer to winter. No longer does the light come into our eyes at 5am and wake us. Most mornings we stay sleepy, or feel like our sleep was rudely interrupted when our alarms go off. Why, if the actual number of hours in the day has not changed, do we feel heavier, slower and more lethargic as we move towards the shortest days of the year? It takes more energy to do what we normally do, when it is dark – we are designed to thrive in the light. Here are a few ideas to help you through the autumn and winter months, and remember that it’s ok to look after yourself. Self-care means different things to everyone, but ultimately if you aren’t taking care of yourself you can’t take care of others or function properly. Self-care is not being selfish, because being selfish means there is a desire to take from others to their detriment, whereas self-care is about replenishing your resources without depleting someone else's.

Meditate and practice mindfulness Focus on your ‘inner light’ – visualise it as a light bulb or candle, then breathe with your inner light, give it attention and allow it to grow. Ask yourself what you can do to help your light burn brighter or longer, then do it. There are many mindfulness techniques that can help you make the change from ‘work life’ to ‘home life’ (whether you are in the workplace or working from home) – why not have a look at this NHS video on mindful breathing techniques?

Breathe We are living through extraordinary times. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to try the ‘box breathing’ technique.

Sleep well (and more, if you need to) It’s ok to listen to your body – in winter we often feel the need to crawl into our beds earlier. Allow yourself the luxury of a healthy rest rather than feeling guilty about it. Get enough rest and good quality sleep - Good quality sleep makes a big difference to how you feel mentally and physically, so it's important to get enough. Being well rested can bring you a multitude of benefits - better concentration and productivity, you’re more likely to eat more healthily, it can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke, improve your mood and immune function, and improve your social interactions. This NHS video gives you some simple tips on how to get good quality sleep.

Let in the light and do what you love Whether that be in the form of wearing brighter colours, putting up some fairy lights, switching off the news and watching your favourite film, spending time on your hobbies or simply opening up the curtains and letting the winter light come in. Call a friend, read a book, watch a film, sing and dance to some awesome tunes – do what feels good and allow yourself to do things that light you up.

Make good food choices - it's easier in the cold months to load up on carbohydrates, sugar and caffeine – but these can make you feel heavy and slow. Try some soup or herbal tea, and add a bit of spice to keep those home fires burning. Why not cook some delicious seasonal vegetables… pumpkin, swede, sweet potato? All known to be packed full of fibre, antioxidants and vitamin C, perfect for boosting the serotonin levels to keep your cravings at bay and happy as the darkness creeps in.

Keep on moving Exercise is very important this time of year… it warms up the body, helps combat tiredness and gets the endorphins pumping. Choose whatever suits you best - you could go outside for a brisk walk or run (within the current guidelines, of course), do some online fitness videos, or practise some yoga in your own front room? It’s true that the weather outside may not be inviting, and studies have shown that exercising indoors in winter has a positive impact on fighting winter blues by improving general mental health and vitality. It doesn’t matter how long you exercise for - getting your heartrate up once a day can make a world of difference.

Have the courage to say no – it’s ok to switch off at the end of the day It’s not always easy, but it’s important to listen to your body and mind and when you are running low on energy, say no to those extra commitments where you may otherwise have said yes. You don’t need to be a superhuman and do it all – so if what you need is a night on the sofa doing absolutely nothing, then allow yourself to say no. Take care not to put yourself under a lot of pressure and be kind to yourself – sometimes we simply have to say no to the tasks we set ourselves, too!

Become a morning person Why not beat the darkness by swapping it for an earlier morning? You will see more hours of daylight - although make sure you have your dressing gown and slippers ready for that cold leap out of bed in the morning!

Help others Research has shown that a major mood booster is when people help others – doing something good for someone else can help you through those darker winter days. Calling to check on a neighbour or offering to pick up some milk in the shop may not feel like much, but it can make a huge difference. Kindness towards those who are vulnerable is needed everyday, not just in a pandemic.