Are you someone whose mood can be impacted by the changing of seasons? Can you find yourself feeling sad or low when we transition from summer to autumn and all the way through the winter months, in comparison to how you feel in the spring and summer?
It’s estimated that 0.5 to 3% of the world’s population and 10-20% of people who live with depression experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD). It’s a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year and tends to be more common the further north or south people live from the equator.
According to the Mayo Clinic symptoms related to winter-onset SAD, also referred to as winter depression, may include:
- Feeling depressed
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Tiredness or low energy
The specific cause is unknown but common factors which are thought to lead to SAD include:
- Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
- Serotonin levels. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, and this may trigger depression.
- Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
Seasonal Affective Disorder in 2020
As the Mayo Clinic suggests, people who are at higher risk of depression are more likely to be susceptible to seasonal changes. The clocks have gone back this week and the days will continue to get shorter and darker over the coming months across the Northern Hemisphere. In this same period, we’re also already seeing increasing cases of COVID-19 and related restrictions happening in many places, including more lockdowns/shelter in place requirements and people being outside less in the daylight as a result.
The rates of people experiencing depression have been increasing globally as a consequence of the health and economic crises, with a recent UK study showing twice as many adults in Britain and a recent US study showing three times as many Americans are experiencing depression this year.
Whilst the race for a vaccine is underway, we know COVID-19 will remain part of our lives for the foreseeable future. So, practicing extra self-care to build resilience toward external factors at hand in the world which are out of our control is incredibly important for all. But especially now, as the darker, colder days are likely to impact more of us heading into autumn and winter in 2020 than in years past.
And it’s looking unlikely this year that we’ll have a chance to escape for that winter holiday in a sunny place. So here are some alternatives to give you that extra boost that you might ordinarily depend on getting in the Canaries or Mexico on a winter getaway.
Five easy ways to practice self-care this autumn and winter
1. Invest in a light lamp – The bright light in the SAD lamp hits the retina and sends nerve signals to the brain, affecting the serotonin and hormone levels. In turn, this improves the mood of the sufferer.
This is such a simple and worthwhile investment. It really works. Some light lamps are portable and can be transported to the office or used at home.
If you’re working at home this winter and if you’re someone who’s susceptible to SAD, alongside using a light lamp, make sure you set up your desk near to the window so you can also get as much natural exposure to light as possible.
2. Make exercise a priority – It is proven that regular exercise can reduce anxiety and depression. It helps release endorphins, a chemical that makes you feel happy and excited. Regular exercise can reduces stress, improve memory and sleep and give you a more optimistic spirit.
And for those of you who struggle to get outside to exercise when it’s darker and colder (or even to motivate for a home workout), a tip for home workers this autumn is to get dressed in the morning in your workout clothes already having a mindset that exercise will be part of your day.
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Or make a date to workout with someone, whether for an online workout or for a brisk walk or run outside. You’ll be less likely to back out this way and your wellbeing will also benefit from the social interaction. Especially if you’re at home working alone.
3. Practice gratitude – According to a study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida, having participants write down a list of positive events at the close of a day — and why the events made them happy — lowered their self-reported stress levels and gave them a greater sense of calm at night.
4. Spend time in nature – Psychology Today reports that increased urbanization is associated with increased levels of mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression. A large two-decade study found that growing up in a rural setting is associated with a less acute stress response, and exposure to greenspace significantly correlates to a positive effect on well-being.
In most places even if we are facing further quarantines, people can still go outside socially distanced. So plan your exercise, outside in the daylight as a priority. And maybe even do you gratitude journaling outside, combining SAD remedies together.
5. Boost your diet with Tryptofan and Zinc – Trytophan is the amino acid that supports the production of serotonin, which is what we lack on darker days. Serotonin is not present in food but Tryptophan is abundant in some foods, such as chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, peanuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds.
Studies have shown that zinc deficiency in the body is associated with depression. Zinc is a very important mineral for brain health as along with vitamin B6, it helps the neurotransmitters in your brain work better. This will help you stay alert and is a natural remedy to help your resilience toward falling into seasonal or non-seasonal depression.
About the author
Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career in the US she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.