Feeling SAD? When the winter blues turn into something more
When it gets colder and the days get shorter, everybody feels a little down. It’s that time of the year when you want to leave work at five, wrapped in onion-like layers of clothing, and curl up in bed at home, ready for hibernation.
The NHS estimates that about two million people in the UK suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression. The winter blues affect many, but for some they are a reoccurring struggle with depression each year.
This can be a particular problem in inner-city boroughs: Islington, for example, has a “significantly worse” rate of adults with depression compared with the rest of the country. On top of that, Islingtonians rank their life satisfaction and happiness as the lowest out of all London boroughs.
One of the two million affected by SAD is Marina Zyazina, 39, who was born in Moscow but has worked in the UK for many years. She has been struggling with the condition for more than a decade. ”When I was a child I was happy in winter,” she says. “But when I started working there was no sunshine at all – you wake up when it’s dark, you spend all the day at the office and when you leave it is already dark again.
“There was one winter period about seven years ago when there was no sunshine in Moscow for more than 40 days. The clouds and the fog were so thick that no sun rays could go though. Depression looks like this and feels like you carry this leaden sky on your shoulders.”
Nearly three million people in England suffer from depression, according to the NHS, which makes it one of the highest prevailing conditions in the country. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a specific type of depression that reoccurs over a certain season, usually the winter.
“Sufferers feel ‘heavy’ physically and psychologically,” says Sherilyn Thompson a psychotherapist from London. “Physically, they are tired but cannot settle into regular sleep patterns, have low energy and see changes in their appetite or eating habits. Psychologically, the person can feel hopeless or worthless, loses interest in activities they once enjoyed, withdraws from friends and family, feels agitated and irritable, and struggles to concentrate.”
Thompson explains that different treatment options are available. Talking therapies like counselling and psychotherapy can be used effectively. It’s especially important to seek help if you find yourself not wanting to leave the house at all, feel helpless and have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, or are tempted to use alcohol or drugs to help yourself feel better. However, the seasonal reoccurrence of SAD suggests that hormonal imbalances are also involved.
“Therapies may also need to work with your biology,” Thompson says. “The darker days may, for example, increase the amount of melatonin your body produces, making you sleepy. And the lack of sunlight may reduce your body’s ability to produce serotonin, which affects your overall mood. In addition to talking therapies, your GP may prescribe a type of antidepressant, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and sometimes light therapy is also recommended.”
Apart from seeking professional help, there are ways to improve well-being during the winter months yourself. “Eat more heavy food,” Marina advises. “You can think about calories in summer. Hot drinks, warming spices and sweet treats are your friends. You should also have as many plans or things to do as you can, but don’t overload yourself.”
A good way to keep busy is exercise. Yoga, especially, can help here, as Lucy Bruegger, a London based yoga teacher, explains. Just five to ten minutes practice per day can already have a positive effect on your mood.
“What I have found is that when the winter blues hit we can get very lethargic and low in energy, with little desire to get out and about and move our body. This in turn can lead to stiffness, bad posture and stagnant energy in the body,” she says. “But when people regularly take time to create union and harmony of breath, body and mind and integrate the scattered parts of themselves they feel happier, healthier and more positive in their lives.”
Some yoga poses are especially helpful to enhance the mood as they stimulate different regions of the body. “In particular the camel pose and bridge pose are great backbends to open the chest and heart region and lift our mood,” Bruegger says. “Gentle inversions work well, too, to help move stagnant energy. Poses like downward facing dog and wide leg forward bend, where the head is below the heart, get the brain bathed in new blood and the circulation system gets a boost, too.”
Bruegger taught classes at the Glow Yoga studio in London. The yoga room at Good Vibes in Covent Garden has SAD lamps or, as she calls them, “happy lights”, installed into the ceiling. These lights are the same ones used in light therapy, which is another way to treat SAD. In the yoga studio, they are used to enhance the mood-improving effects of the training.
In therapy, so-called light boxes can help to compensate for the reduced hours of sunshine in the winter months. Beverley Bunting and her husband own the SAD Light Hire Company in Southport. She explains how light therapy can relieve the symptoms of winter depression.
“The light from the lamp travels through the eye and hits the retina. Through that pathway it affects the pineal gland in the brain, which in turn leads to higher serotonin levels. This is basically the same thing that happens when sunlight hits your eye. So light boxes can replace the sunshine hours you don’t have in winter,” Bunting, who suffers from SAD herself, says.
“Usually the light boxes are for seasonal use between September and April, to replace the sun hours you lose in winter. But some people, who spend a lot of time in the dark, like shift workers or someone living in a basement apartment, might use them all year long.”
Instead of buying a light box, SAD-sufferers can also try to find the light elsewhere. Chasing the sun has helped Marina. “It is good to escape to sunny places if you have the time,” she says. “India in January works or even southern Europe or California in February or March. It smells like spring there, like tangerines, oranges, ginger and cinnamon. It helps me to assure myself spring is coming.”
Often the reason why we feel sad is that we don’t notice the little things in life. But to be happy in the long-run, these are the ones that matter most.
For Marina, it is the support of her friends and family that helps her when the winter blues hit. “I am really happy to have such wonderful people around me,” she says. “They help me survive when it is too bad. They just show up in time and say something needed precisely at this moment or they are just there for me.”
But this appreciation does not always come naturally. There are certain exercises that can help to see things more positively – so-called Positive Interventions are often used by psychologists to treat depression.
“One positive intervention is Three Good Things. At the end of each the day you note three positive experiences and think about how you might manage to repeat them again in the future,” explains Anke Plagnol, a researcher and lecturer in the field of subjective well-being at City University London.
“Another one is the gratitude visit. You write and deliver a letter to a person that has been kind to you, but has never been properly thanked. This is something that can be quite uncomfortable, because we are not used to saying thank you and being that emotionally open to other people. Still, it is a very powerful exercise and usually people really enjoy it.”
Plagnol also recommends some other things to keep in mind in everyday life. Do not compare yourself to others, for instance, as this will usually stop you from appreciating what you have. Also make sure to balance your free time activities and include variety in them in order to keep the things you enjoy fresh in your mind.
So if you are one of the two million Brits that have SAD and the blues have hit you once again, remember that winter is only a three-month season. As Marina says: “Repeat the mantra, even if you don’t believe in it right now – there is spring to come.”