How To Beat The Winter Blues – Part 1by Dr Holly Kahya - 20th October, 2016
How to Beat the Winter Blues – Part 1
It’s that time of year again: the clocks are changing back, the days get shorter and many of us can begin to notice a dip in mood. Whether you simply suffer from a touch of autumnal apathy or veer towards Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s good to plan ahead in order to beat the winter blues.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression which starts during the autumn period, worsens during the winter months, particularly between December and February, and typically improves again in the spring. Symptoms typically can include:
- A persistent low mood
- Feeling lethargic or persistent low energy
- Loss of interest or pleasure in everyday things
- Sleep difficulties, disturbed sleep, difficulty waking
- Depression and/or anxiety, sometimes for no apparent reason
- Craving carbohydrates and weight gain
What causes SAD?
The seasonal nature of SAD symptoms are thought to be caused by the changes in exposure to natural sunlight during the winter months, within the higher latitudes of the Northern hemisphere. Like many other animals in the natural world, our bodies have evolved to rely on exposure to natural light in order to maintain our circadian rhythms, that is to regulate bodily functions such as appetite, digestion, energy levels, sleep and mood. Whereas for most of our evolutionary history we lived and worked out doors and our working day was limited by availability of natural light, in the modern world most people spend the majority of the day working indoors. Furthermore the working day has been artificially extended by the invention of the electric light bulb, meaning that we no longer work – and wake – in harmony with our natural biological rhythm.
What’s the science behind it?
The homeostatic control centre of the brain, the hypothalamus, responsible for regulating our basic physiological processes, is thought to function less effectively in response to reduced exposure to sunlight. Consequently the production of certain hormones is affected, specifically:
- Melatonin: People suffering from SAD produce higher levels of the sleep hormone melatonin during the winter months, accounting for an increase in sleepiness and lack of energy.
- Serotonin: People suffering from SAD usually produce lower levels of serotonin, which affects mood, appetite and sleep.
In addition there is some evidence that SAD may have a genetic component as some cases appear to run in families.
How can psychology help?
Whilst there might be a strong underlying biological component to SAD, from a psychological perspective what we do and how we think also plays an important role in exacerbating or alleviating symptoms. In part two of this blog I will explore the ways in which we can inadvertently allow symptoms to worsen and some of the ways in which we can help ourselves feel better, from the perspective of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy.