Seasonal affective disorder: tips to beat the Winter blues

For most of us this is the time of year when we realise we have already failed to keep our new year’s resolutions, we’re still in debt from Christmas and the weather seems permanently miserable.

So it will come as no surprise that the start of next week, 21 January, has been dubbed Blue Monday – calculated to be the unhappiest day of the year based on a formula devised by psychologist Cliff Arnall.

But whether you are just prone to a dip in mood during winter or are one of the estimated one million people in the UK with seasonal affective disorder (I suspect whoever came up with that had the acronym – SAD – already in mind), there are several ways to counter the doom and gloom.

Get outdoors

It’s tempting to stay indoors and hibernate during winter. However, exposure to natural light sends important signals to our hypothalamus, the area of the brain that controls sleep, appetite and mood functions. So get outdoors during daylight and get some fresh air.

Even if the sun isn’t shining, a brief lunchtime walk around the park can be hugely beneficial. If it’s not possible to get out during the day, try sitting near windows when indoors.

Eat healthily

Minimise your intake of fatty foods and sugary snacks as comfort eating will make you sluggish and lead to weight gain. Stimulants only create short lived energy bursts, so cut down on chocolate, tea and coffee. Reducing your alcohol intake will help too as booze has a depressant effect on the brain leading to a worsening of mood.

Instead, try to maintain a well-balanced diet containing plenty of fruit and vegetables. Oily fish may be a further consideration. Long called “brain food”, there may be some truth in this as studies suggest that the Omega 3 fatty acids in oily fish can help with depressive moods.

Get more exercise

Physical activity increases the number of endorphins in our bodies. These feel-good chemicals improve energy levels, help us relax and feel happy. Consider cycling as a way of getting to work or try swimming in your free time as this is an excellent all-round aerobic exercise.

And while joining the gym might have been one of your failed resolutions, not all forms of physical activity need be so costly. Walking is arguably the easiest and best form of exercise, and as with all outdoor activities the exposure to sunlight has a positive effect on the brain’s pineal gland, which results in a further boost to your mood.

Try a light box

Mental health charity Mind considers light therapy to be one of the most effective treatments for people with SAD. The process involves sitting in front of a specially designed light box, which mimics outdoor light, for an hour or so each day.

This light encourages chemical changes in your brain that improve mood. Light boxes can be used in the home while the user undertakes everyday tasks. Prices start from around £70, but before undertaking light therapy it is recommended that you consult your GP.

Consider talking therapy

If your mood is very bleak it’s important not to suffer in silence. Formal forms of counselling or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) may be useful in helping cope with symptoms, and these treatments can help identify negative thoughts and feelings which may be making your symptoms worse.

Therapy sessions may also provide you with self-help techniques such as relaxation and breathing exercises. GPs are able to discuss the availability of treatment in your area, although there may be a waiting list. There is also a computerised form of CBT (CCBT) that may be available.

Treat yourself to a winter break

There’s often an unseemly scramble to use up annual leave before the end of the financial year, so avoid this by booking a holiday in January or February. Choose the seaside to get plenty of fresh air.

Or if your budget (and green conscience) still allows after your Christmas spending, get some winter sun on an overseas holiday. This will give you something to look forward to and might just be the tonic you need.

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