Seven ways to combat seasonal affective disorder

According to research by YouGov and The Weather Group, around 29% of the UK suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) each year, also known as “winter depression”. With lockdown measures set to stay in place for some time to come, balancing both the national restrictions and the symptoms of SAD can be overwhelming.

For those who experience SAD during the winter, factors like social isolation and inactivity will be triggering heightened feelings around the condition. These feelings combined with the cold, dark season cause people to feel depressed and unmotivated, due to the lack of sunlight and the benefits that longer days have on people’s mood.

Dr Giuseppe Aragona, GP and Medical Advisor at Prescription Doctor, details the everyday activities that can help to combat the feelings of SAD during the lockdown.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

The symptoms of SAD or seasonal affective disorder are very similar to those of depression. However, they usually only occur at a certain time of year, when the weather starts to turn cold and the nights get darker. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you to make sense of overwhelming problems by breaking them down into smaller parts, namely: situations, thoughts, emotions, physical feelings and actions. These concepts are known to be interlinked with each other, so if you are faced with a difficult, stressful situation this can then affect your emotions making you take a specific action.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is often carried out by a qualified psychotherapist, but its benefits can be recreated online by using interactive tools and actively engaging in CBT exercises at home. Activities include mindfulness meditation, which can help with feelings of anxiety and depression, writing self-statements to counteract negative thoughts and reframing your negative thoughts. With lockdown limiting our social interaction, the results of practicing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at home or outside during lunch breaks can be successful and yield positive results.

Daily exercise

Those suffering with SAD can often experience a loss of interest in normal activities or hobbies leading to feelings of irritability, low self-esteem, worthlessness, stress and anxiety. However, it is important to find the time to add exercise back into your daily routine so that you can make the most of the natural sunlight with the shorter days. The latest ONS data has revealed that 11% of the UK workforce was on full or partial furlough between 7 September and 20 September and 24% of the UK were working from home.

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Making sure you use your lunchtime to carry our regular exercise can be a great way to add it gradually back into your day. Personal trainers such as Courtney Black, Bradley Simmonds, Megan Grubb and Joe Wicks are all using social media to train people who have either been furloughed or are working from home. Regular classes with these trainers are helping keep people active and mentally stimulated while bringing a sense of community back to exercise.

Office location

If your home office is set up in a dark space with little to no natural light, you might want to think about moving your current setup to somewhere near a window. Vitamin D, also known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, thrives off natural light, and with the lack of sun exposure that comes with shutting yourself in your home, making the most of the natural light is crucial to your health and your body’s circadian system. By placing your workspace next to a window, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to soak up vitamin-rich sunlight. This act alone can cause a chemical change in the brain that can alleviate symptoms of depression and improve your mood overall.

Eating healthily

Making positive lifestyle changes such as eating healthily can help boost your overall mood, helping you feel happier and more stress-free. With lockdown looming for at least another three weeks, ordering takeaway food almost acts as a treat, satisfying a craving for something uplifting in times of hardship. However, food that contains refined sugars, heavily processed ingredients and saturated fat can do more harm than good to your mental state.

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Foods that can trigger your brain to release mood lifting neurotransmitters such as serotonin include fruits, vegetables and foods high in fiber. Choose seasonal fruits and vegetables such as pears, beetroot, butternut squash, leeks and kale. Ordering fresh produce and boxes directly to your door through local businesses and distributors will mean that you can avoid queuing at the supermarket and instead support companies closer to home.

Kicking unhealthy habits

Similar to healthy eating, cutting out unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking can help to boost our overall mood, mental and physical state. A recent study, ‘ Quitting Smoking for Mental Health ’ found that participants experienced a positive impact on their mental health after a 4-week period of smoking cessation (52.2%), compared to during the 4 weeks of initial smoking cessation (39.1%), which is an increase of 13%. Ex-smokers stated that they saw an immediate improvement in their mental health when quitting, which went on to increase further after 4 weeks. Smoking has also been found to cause physical symptoms such as irritability, anxiety and stress, symptoms which are also signs of SAD.

Additionally, alcohol consumption saw a significant spike during lockdown earlier this year. According to research from independent alcohol education charity Drinkaware, two in five (38%) of people on furlough and a third (33%) of parents with at least one child under 18 were drinking more alcohol since the start of lockdown. Turning to the bottle can suppress feelings of fear, frustration and worry in the short term but can lead to deeper feelings of anxiety in the long run. Alcohol shouldn’t be used as a social coping strategy during lockdown. While the odd drink over Zoom or Skype can increase feelings of community and togetherness with your friends and family, continued use during the week can lead to deeper problems, worsening SAD.

Increasing your sleep

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SAD sufferers often feel lethargic and sleepy during the day, resulting in lack of concentration when it comes to daily tasks and activities. Sleep hygiene is an important factor to combat as it will help you to function properly during the day leading to a better quality of sleep. Completing a sleep diary for two weeks can help those suffering to understand their routine better. Recording the time you went to bed and woke up, how long and well you slept, when you were awake during the night and the exercise you did during the day, and what time, are all factors that can help you to establish a healthier relationship with sleep.

Other contributors to achieving healthy sleeping habits include keeping a consistent sleep schedule, establishing a relaxing bedtime routine such as taking a bath and reading, and turning off electronic devices such as your phone 30 minutes before bed.

Talking to friends and family

Although we may not all be in the same boat with the way we are feeling, we are all on the same journey finding our way through the pandemic. Talking to a friendly voice on the phone or through a video call, whether that be a friend, colleague or family member can really help boost feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Additionally, talking to someone about how you’re feeling can help you come to terms with why you might be feeling a certain way. Often sharing your thoughts and feelings with a close one can bring a sense of relief to a situation, helping you deal with it.