The British weather hasn’t been much to write home about this summer so you may have escaped the wind and drizzle by jetting off to sunnier climes or having some time off and relaxing with friends and family. Now, though, as Summer draws to a close you realise the novel you were going to write when you were off didn’t quite happen and that optimistic fitness/diet regime hasn’t resulted in a ‘new you’. To top it off you’ve blown all your cash on your holiday so it’s going to be a tight couple of months and, although you caught a glimpse of freedom on your travels, you’re now back in the same old routine and nothing has changed. It’s time to go back to work/university/school and the post-Summer blues are kicking in.
Some people bounce back and adjust to the new season but for others it’s not so easy. It’s normal to feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer or to eat more or sleep longer in winter, however, if you experience Seasonal Affective Disorder the change in seasons will have a much greater effect on your mood and energy levels and could lead to symptoms of depression that have a significant impact on your day-to-day life. According to the Mental Health Foundation, “seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that the NHS estimates to affect approximately one in 15 people in the UK between September and April.”
Mental health organisation, Mind, says that for some people, symptoms of SAD are fairly mild and last for a shorter period, mainly during December, January and February, and are known as the ‘winter blues’, or sub-syndromal SAD but some people have very severe symptoms and find it hard to carry out day-to-day tasks in winter without continuous treatment. SAD can be caused by changes in daylight (some people need a lot more light than others for their body to regulate sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity), low serotonin levels and/or high melatonin levels, a disrupted body clock or an unwelcome or traumatic life event, such a major loss or bereavement or a serious illness. It may also be triggered by physical illness, a change to diet or medication, or the use of drugs or alcohol.
So, whether you’re suffering from post-holiday blues or a deeper and longer-lasting period of low mood, what can you do to lift your spirits?
Make the most of natural light
It won’t cure SAD but increasing your exposure to daylight by going outdoors, particularly around midday or on bright days, can help to reduce symptoms. We tend to stay inside a lot over the winter, which can contribute to the blues but even looking out a window or just being in daylight can improve your mood so wrap up and go for a walk or do some outdoor activities.
People are more likely to suffer from stress in winter so if you find this time of year difficult try planning ahead to reduce the amount of stressful or difficult activities you have during this time. Another tip is to make more spare time to rest, relax or do pleasant activities in the winter – perhaps pamper yourself physically with a massage or learn a relaxation technique to help you unwind.
You may not feel like it at the time but physical activity is an effective way of lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly strenuous – doing housework, gardening or going for a gentle walk can all help – and doing something physical outside in a green space, such as the park or the countryside, has been shown to be especially helpful. A healthy diet is also important, so try to balance the common SAD craving for carbohydrates with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Improve your support network
As the dark nights draw in and the weather gets chillier, avoid cutting yourself off socially by staying indoors too much. We humans are sociable creatures who need some amount of contact with others in order to stay mentally healthy so ensure you reach out and get whatever contact you need to stay happy and well.
Be aware of your feelings
If you find it hard to adjust to the new season, use your emotions to help you: difficult feelings could be an indication that something needs to change in your life but the good news is that recognising and regulating your emotions will help you in addressing any issues you may have. Look for common signs of low mood such as a lack of appetite, trouble sleeping, moodiness, an inability to control impulses, apathy or skipping activities that are normally of interest.
If the post-Summer blues show no signs of shifting, it might be a sign of a more prolonged problem. Depression can rear its head at any time in life and often prevents us from taking pleasure from the things that used to make us happy. If you find you can’t manage your symptoms yourself, or that they’re starting to have a significant impact on your day-to-day life, you might find it helpful to talk to your GP or a mental health professional. Talking treatments such as counselling can be extremely useful in helping people to cope with SAD symptoms and can help you to recognise and deal with other factors that may be contributing to your low mood.
This article was written for and featured in the September/October 2016 edition of the Tyne Valley Express.