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We might relish that extra hour in bed, but the clocks going back this weekend heralds dark times ahead – and not just in terms of fewer daylight hours. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is thought to affect up to two million people in the UK and presents itself in different ways in winter.
From low mood, irritability and feeling lethargic, to craving carbohydrates, finding it hard to get up in the morning and having difficulty concentrating, SAD is sometimes referred to as ‘winter depression’ or ‘winter blues’.
While the exact cause isn’t fully known, Dr Craig Sawchuk, a psychologist from Mayo Clinic, says SAD can cause significant problems in day-to-day functioning. ‘Symptoms may start out mild with feeling down or simply “blah” and become more severe as the season progresses,’ he says.
‘Specific causes remain unknown; however, it is thought that the reduction in sunlight in autumn and winter may disrupt the body’s internal clock – circadian rhythm – and lead to feelings of fatigue and depression.
‘Reduced sunlight can also cause a drop in serotonin [a brain chemical that affects mood] and this can trigger depression, while the change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
‘While it’s normal to have some days when you feel down, if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, it’s best to see your doctor.’
Lifestyle changes can help, so Dr Sawchuk advises a healthy diet, regular exercise, staying connected with friends and getting as much natural light as possible. ‘These are helpful places to start,’ he says. ‘Also, light therapy [AKA phototherapy] can help, and a lightbox placed a couple of feet in front of you for approximately 20 minutes each day within the first hour of waking up in the morning can improve SAD symptoms.
‘Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to help regulate the sleep-wake cycle and influence brain chemicals linked to mood.’ So, to keep you feeling brighter this winter, we asked leading experts in the field of happiness for their tips.
‘Stop, sit, chat, relax’
Author and Happiness Guru Dr Andy Cope says we should take ideas from Scandinavia – generally voted the happiest countries in the world – to avoid succumbing to winter’s gloom.
‘In Sweden, the “fika” custom is all about taking it slow and pausing for down time. For example, fika is absolutely not about grabbing a coffee and drinking it on the go, which is something us Brits tend to do.
‘Instead, it’s the deliberate act of stopping, sitting, chatting and relaxing. These fika moments are small pit stops that allow you to recharge your batteries.
‘On a similar theme, the Dutch word “niksen” refers to the deliberate act of doing nothing. For example, sitting in your chair for ten minutes, looking out of the window, that’s the level of nothingness I’m talking about. In a world of busyness, this is surprisingly hard. We’ve become human “doings” instead of human “beings!” Treat yourself to ten minutes of niksen a day and reap the rejuvenating effects.
How to get up refreshed in the morning
If SAD is affecting your ability to get up in the morning, James Wilson, AKA The Sleep Geek, has these top tips.
1. Do not fall foul of Snooze Button Syndrome
‘A long snooze button regime means you spend the last hour or so of sleep, waking fitfully, full of adrenaline and in fight or flight mode. This sort of regime will only leave you feeling shattered and struggling to function.’
2. Wake up to light
‘Rather than using an audible alarm, try waking up with a sunshine alarm clock. Natural light encourages production of cortisol, the wake-up hormone, helping you feel energised and alert.
‘A light box, SAD lamp or glasses especially designed to direct natural light into the eyes will help pull your body out of sleep gently.’
3. Have a consistent wake-up time
‘Your body loves consistency, and a wake-up time will leave you feeling less groggy. If we have a significant lay-in at the weekend (over an hour-and-a-half), then it confuses the body and gives us social jet lag.
‘This makes waking up harder and the morning more difficult to deal with.’
‘Finland is ranked as the happiest country and the Finns have the word “kalsarikännit” which literally means “pantsdrunk”. It translates as “drinking at home, in your underwear, with no intention of going out.” Please note, it’s not about getting blind drunk. Kalsarikännit is about staying in and getting snuggly with someone you love.’
‘Focus on things you can be grateful for’
Happiness Explorer Lydia Kimmerling says that the feeling of happiness is within your control.
‘Your mindset is paramount for maintaining your happiness, so pay careful attention to the internal script that may be running in the background of your thoughts.
How to perfect your diet
‘No one food alone will have a magical impact on our wellbeing, health or mood,’ says Signe Svanfeldt, nutritionist at healthy eating app Lifesum. ‘The key to overall wellbeing is a balanced, varied and nutritious diet – and regular physical activity. There are, however, certain food groups that can promote our mental health and mood. Here are some examples…’
‘A high intake of vegetables in an overall balanced diet has been shown to not only provide essential nutrients, but also a higher level of overall optimism and self-efficacy. It can also protect against depression.’
2. Fruit and berries
‘Fruits and berries are associated with an overall improved state of mental health, partly due to their high nutritional value, and increased feelings of optimism when consumed regularly.’
3. Fatty fish
‘Fatty fish is high in omega-3, an essential fatty acid that is important for regulating mood and maintaining the healthy development of our brain.’
‘The connection between our gut and mental health is called the gut-brain axis, and our microbiome is associated with our mental health. The intake of probiotics (found in yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and sourdough bread) has been shown to promote a healthy microbiome, which can influence your mood.’
‘The amino acids (protein building blocks) such as tryptophan are needed to create serotonint, which is known as the “happy” brain neurotransmitter because it helps to stabilise our mood, happiness and feelings of wellbeing. Tryptophan is found in foods such as poultry, eggs, fish, wholegrains, nuts and seeds.’
‘While sunshine may lift your mood in summer, in winter you might need to put more effort into directing your focus towards a more positive internal script. What can quickly steal our happiness, is the feeling that we have no choice, but even when life isn’t going our way, we always have a choice to manage our mind. For example, if you’re telling yourself that you can’t be happy during winter, ask yourself instead, what will help you feel more in control?
‘Focus on things that you can be grateful for. You may not have sunshine, but you do have a roof over your head, a job to go to and friends who love you. Building a better mental resilience will not only make it easier to get through the darker months, but it will make your whole life better, no matter the weather.’
‘Happiness is contagious’
Mindset expert Peggy Sullivan says happiness is a ‘muscle’ and should be worked every day.
‘When we’re happy, blood flows to our brain and produces neurochemicals called serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals result in us feeling good, or even euphoric, and having more energy. Happiness can also lower anxiety, extend lifespan and even improve relationships. The first step to becoming happier is to acknowledge happiness is an inside job and it is during challenging times that we need to make happiness actionable, even when we are not feeling it.
‘Through practice you can train your happiness muscle to get stronger and improve the quality of your life.
‘Happiness is contagious and will create a ripple effect. Try creating happiness rituals. Go-to strategies you do “just for you” because they make you feel good, like dancing in your underwear, or going for a long walk, or the scent of pumpkin spice. Own your happiness, it’s your responsibility.’
Three of the best SAD lamps
Groov-e Light Curve
Simple but effective, the Groov-e Light Curve has ten levels of brightness and comes on at a selected time, gradually getting brighter until it’s at the optimum level. A chosen alarm sound or radio station can also be activated if you need a helping hand.
Buy it for £24.99 from Robert Dyas.
Beurer TL 45 Perfect Day Therapy Lamp
Simulating the three phases of the sun with three colour temperature settings, the Beurer TL 45 Perfect Day Therapy Lamp allows you to reap the benefits of natural sunlight morning, noon and night even when it’s cloudy.
Buy it for £89.99 from John Lewis.
The Lumie Halo is a stylish-looking, multifunctional light therapy lamp that delivers 10,000 lux to simulate sunlight in Day Mode to improve mood, energy and focus, while its low-blue light in Evening Mode promotes rest and relaxation.
Buy it from £182.50 from Lumie.
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