SAD (seasonal affective disorder) more commonly known as winter depression plagues an estimated 1 in 4 people every year (National Alliance of Mental Health). These symptoms can range from experiencing mild depression, a drop in energy levels, fatigue or weight gain to extreme manifestations of depression that can result in hospitalisation. Winter depression is most commonly theorised to be weather-induced such as a lack of sun and extreme cold and rain, which results in lower levels of serotonin and higher levels of melatonin being produced in your body. Although we cannot move the clouds that separate us from much-needed vitamin D, here are five simple things you can do that I have found successful for lowering the effects of winter depression until the sunshine returns.
The first thing you can do is be intentional about staying active. Activity increases the release of endorphins which give you a positive feeling. During the winter it is more difficult to motivate yourself to get outside and be active, but it starts with setting small goals. If you struggle with winter depression, I challenge you to take a 15-30-minute walk at some point during the daylight hours A great time to build a walk is during your lunch break or as a study break. It doesn’t have to be just a walk, call a friend or listen to a podcast for an added productivity. This is a small thing to put on your to-do list that will have an immensely positive impact over time on your attitude.
Second of all, be near the light. Even if the sky is cloudy, do as much as you can to be near sunlight. Open your blinds during daylight hours and sit near the window when you study at home or in the library. If you work at a desk that isn’t near a window during the day or you have more severe winter depression, consider buying a SAD therapy lamp. These are lamps you can set on your desk or by your bed to create some of the positive effects of the sun by tricking your body into producing hormones that are usually induced by sunlight.
The third thing is something that I started to do a couple months ago which was a gratitude journal. This is somewhat of a recent trend in the fight for mental health and can be a straightforward daily practice to help battle winter depression. The idea is that you purchase a small journal to keep by your bedside or at your desk and dedicate 5 minutes a day to write down things that made you happy that day or something good that happened to you. I have begun the practice of setting these 5 minutes aside at the end of the day to jot down a few things that made me smile. I keep it by bedside table and then, conveniently, when I can’t be bothered to get out of bed some mornings I reach over and read back on some of the simple joys that have taken place over the past few weeks.
The fourth thing is food. Everything we put into our body has such a significant impact on our energy levels. One of the effects of winter depression is a craving for carbohydrates. Eating too many carbs can result in low energy levels and weight gain which can all be a downward cycle. Eating healthy is hard and takes planning, but it is worth putting extra thought into what you are fueling your body with. Eating right looks different for everyone, but for a base, the NHS recommends consuming 5 portions of fruits and veggies, drinking plenty of water, getting protein such as meat, fish, beans, or soy-based foods, and then adding in carbs, dairy, sugar and salt in smaller proportions. Another thing that you can consider incorporating into your food routine is vitamins. Vitamin D3 and B12 are two of the primary vitamins that we glean from time in the sun which affect our mood positively.
The final simple habit and thing I am most passionate about is people. Let your friends into what you are feeling, chances are they have experienced it as well. Nothing counteracts depression more than a good laugh with a friend. So reach out to those around you, if you already have good friends in Oxford, initiate with them. If you don’t feel like you know many people in Oxford yet, set a goal to reach out to one person a week, support from friends makes a world of difference.
In summary, if you are struggling with winter depression, you can incorporate small things into your daily routine to help minimise the effects. Five habits that you should consider doing for the rest of the winter are to exercise regularly, even as simple as a daily walk outside, sit next to windows to get as much sunlight as you can (or invest in a SAD light), start a gratitude journal, eat a balanced diet, and talk to your friends about it. Mental illness is common and something that we cannot fight alone. Although we cannot control the weather, we do have control over small routines that can keep us from being SAD this winter.
Illustration credit to Lucy King