How to make SAD not so bad

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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the “winter blues” is something many of us have been unfortunate enough to experience. With shorter days, lower levels of sunshine and colder weather, our body and minds want to curl up and hibernate…but we’re not allowed to, are we? We’re expected to keep rocking up to work on time and working until the sun’s divebombed back below the horizon.

As somebody who manages low mood year round, and especially over the winter months, below are ten simple tips I’ve found have worked wonders for me…

1. Light alarm clock

Yep. This is one of those rare times you’ll hear me say technology might just change your life for the better. When it comes to sleep, we think of time spent sleeping, quality of sleep etc, but have you ever considered how you wake up? I know I hadn’t.

Consider this: it’s 7am, still pitch dark and you’re in deep REM, mid-dream. Then, BAM! There goes your (probably phone!) alarm. Would you wake up someone you didn’t hate by blasting tinny noises in their ears? No. So why do you do it to yourself?

Check out Phillips and Lumie light alarm clocks. Ranging from £30-£250, you can get yourself an alarm clock that will very gradually brighten your room over the course of (usually) half an hour. The idea is that by the time it very gently begins making some relaxing sounds, you’re already, or very nearly, awake. You know how an awful start to a morning can sometimes set your day up to be a disaster? Do yourself a favour and start your morning right.

2. SAD Lamp

Disclaimer: SAD lamps don’t whisper sweet nothings in your ear

Disclaimer: SAD lamps don’t whisper sweet nothings in your ear

As much as we like to pretend otherwise, we’re animals. Mammals, to be precise. In most species of mammal, even those who don’t hibernate, activity is markedly slowed during the winter months. This is caused by a reduction in sunlight available (and historically, with less food around, would have been a handy instinct), which in turn causes our circadian rhythm (sleep pattern related to light & dark) to adjust accordingly. The problem is these days we’re still expected to rock up at the office at 8am and not club Brian from accounts with a stick…

This is where an SAD lamp comes in. Providing us with a similar dose of light to a bright summer’s morning, it tells our body to shut off melatonin production and get going. Grab yourself one of these babies and eat your porridge in front of it (or even bring it into the office with you!)

3. Hydration

No, Karen. That’s just a jug of fruit and gin.

No, Karen. That’s just a jug of fruit and gin.

Drink water. You don’t need telling, do you? It’s easy to forget though, especially in winter when you don’t feel you need it as much…which is why we often end up dehydrated and sluggish. If we aren’t properly hydrated, our organs can’t function to their full potential. Our digestion, blood flow, brain capacity and toxin filtering are all adversely affected. Any surprise, then, that you feel like napping at your desk?

So how to make drinking water more appealing? Try buying a reusable bottle or thermos you like the look or feel of. Bring it around with you, sit it on your desk etc. Fill it with nice things like slices of ginger, cucumber, lemon/lime, tumeric etc. The upside of all this water drunk will be an increase in the number of toilet breaks you take…which means more energising mental mini-breaks (and less time at your desk…)

4. Exercise

As mentioned above, the body will want to descend into a state of semi-hibernation through winter. All well and good if we’re eating less, sleeping more and generally taking it easy…but we’re not. Less exercise means less mood-boosting endorphins being released, lower quality sleep and more pounds piling on…all of which make for a grumpier hu-mammal.

Consider walking or cycling to work when the weather permits (or buy the gear so it always permits!). Start an exercise routine - yoga, jogging, gym, a social sport. If you choose a solo sport, consider convincing a friend to join your routine - it always helps when you know you have someone waiting on you.

5. Diet

Here’s where that old caveman (caveperson?) instinct does us a solid disservice again. Remember how food would be less available around now? Well your inner caveman Brian (Bertha?) would’ve smashed whatever berry, bison or biscuit he came across. It’s not summer anymore, is it Brian? Hobnobs no longer grow on trees.

Again, you know you shouldn’t eat rubbish food. Right? So how do we help ourselves out? Simple answer: don’t fill your cupboards with it. If it’s not there, you won’t eat it.

  • Have a bar of dark chocolate in your cupboard. Give yourself a square when you feel the urge.

  • Have nice fruit and healthy snacks (nuts, natural yoghurt, hummus etc) available in your kitchen for those times when you need to snack and run.

  • Eat breakfast. Now that you’re waking up much easier, getting up just half an hour earlier is a cinch right? Enjoy that half hour over a mug of coffee and bowl of porridge (filled with cinnamon, nuts, dried cranberries and honey) while you read the news or listen to a podcast.

  • Avoid sugar. Nothing is going to make you want to dive into a couch for 24 hours more than a monster sugar crash. (This includes those worth-their-weight-in-sugar flapjacks you convince yourself are the healthy option!)

6. Caffeine & Alcohol

Ew. Guts.

Ew. Guts.

I love a good flat white as much as the next bearded, tattooed, pierced hipster. But I also know what happens when I have one (or three!) too many. Caffeine makes us feel more alert by activating our sympathetic nervous system - that part of the system we refer to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. In small doses, this can be constructive and help pep us up. But what happens when we’re stuck behind a desk or trying to pay attention to detail while our body wants to parkour its way out of its very skin? You start typing your life story into Excel and Brian from accounts gets sarky email responses. Drink more water or try out decaffeinated tea or coffee (honestly, there is an absolutely negligible difference in taste!)

Alcohol, on the other hand, is a central nervous system depressant. Quite aside from the obvious effects of a hangover, we always have to pay for alcohol in the near future to some extent. It will impair the quality of sleep, reduce reaction times, make us feel flat and impair memory. I’m not saying cut out alcohol, but if you struggle to say no to booze, perhaps try making less of your social interactions centred around it. Maybe this winter take the opportunity to take up a social hobby or course with friends. (Or just get better at saying no!)

7. Sleep Routine

Sleep. After air, water and decent waves, there’s nothing that’ll have a bigger impact on our wellbeing than sleep. We all know we’re supposed to get our 8 hours, but are we counting playing on our phone, watching tv series or reading our book as part of our 8? Are we getting to bed at a different time every night? Our bodies love and behave best when it comes to routine sleep patterns. Do yourself a favour - once you’ve bought your light alarm clock, leave your phone charging in the living room!

8. Vitamin D Supplement

You’ll very rarely hear me encouraging consumption of dietary supplements (a rounded plant or meat-based diet can’t be beat!), but Vitamin D is one I come back to each winter. Low levels of the vitamin have been linked to a weakened immune system, low mood and a whole range of illnesses. Given that our bodies produce the bulk of Vitamin D required through our skin’s exposure to sunlight, it’s no wonder that we in the further reaches of the northern hemisphere are a bit short-changed for a good chunk of the year…especially if we’re office bound for the majority of the time the sun’s swinging around the sky! If you’re going to supplement, I would recommend looking for a mouth spray, rather than tablets as research has shown higher absorption rates are recorded by spraying.

All this being said, it’d be remiss of me not to mention that there are a host of highly-qualified detractors as well as supporters of supplementing Vitamin D. Read here for a well-rounded article on the topic.

9. Vacation

Sunshine might balance out the shame of your horrendous French

Sunshine might balance out the shame of your horrendous French

For those of us fortunate enough to be able to afford to travel off to sunnier shores, it’s well worth considering when and where we decide to do so. Very often we go on holidays in the summer months, just when the sun has started showing itself. How about a November or January trip to somewhere sunny? Not only will we get a morale-boosting dose of sunshine, but it’ll probably be cheaper than a high season mid-summer jaunt.

10. Journal/Talk/Therapy

Coming in last, but definitely not least, is speaking up and speaking out. However you like to whoever you want, DON’T HESITATE! If things get bad, don’t put dark thoughts and seriously low mood down to simple winter blues. Write in a journal without self-censure or embarrassment, speak to friends or family, or go to see a GP or therapist. This list of tips is made up of building blocks to keep you tipping along and is absolutely no substitute for qualified mental health consultation.

Got any amazing suggestions on how to survive winter? Make sure to get in touch with any of your own you feel I’ve missed out on!