How to Beat the Winter Blues
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 that 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 outdoors and our working day was limited by the 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.
As the darker night’s approach and the weather worsens in part 1 of How to beat the winter blues we explored a bit about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and some of the biological factors that might account for symptoms of sleepiness/sleep disturbance, lethargy, low mood/depression, and changes in appetite. In Part 2 we will explore how Cognitive Behavioural Therapy might help us to change what we do to cope, to reduce the symptoms of SAD.
Changing what we do
Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy is based upon the assumption that how we feel affects what we do and what we do affects how we feel. From this perspective, when we feel sleepy, lethargic and low in mood it seems perfectly understandable that we might try to cope with this by hiding under the duvet and reaching for the biscuits. We are also more likely to notice more negative automatic thoughts, such as “Oh, it’s cold and dark outside, I might as well just stay in…” Unfortunately the more we avoid going out and taking part in pleasurable activities the worse we are likely to feel, resulting in a vicious cycle.
In order to break this cycle, it can be helpful to try writing a weekly activity schedule (such as the one below) to help ensure we are keeping active and engaging with rewarding and pleasurable activities that help lift our mood and re-energise us.
To increase your exposure to sunlight and maintain your general fitness you could try scheduling in time for regular outdoor exercise, such as going for a walk in the park at lunchtime. Since it is also harder to maintain a healthy, balanced diet when suffering from SAD it might also be useful to schedule a time to plan a healthy meal for each day and to do the relevant food shopping. It can also be beneficial to plan ways to manage stress through the winter period by planning times for relaxing activities such as yoga, mindfulness or time with friends. Finally, now’s a good time to plan a holiday as a way of breaking up the winter months – spending time outdoors in nature even in the UK can be a good tonic for beating the winter blues.
Whilst these ideas might sound simple and obvious, it can be surprisingly difficult to implement these strategies when we are feeling lethargic or depressed, therefore getting prepared early is the key to effective mood management.
We will now explore the way in which our thoughts also effect what we do and how we feel.
Challenging how we think
From the perspective of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy the way we think effects how we feel and what we do. Conversely, how we feel effects the sorts of thoughts we might experience. When suffering from the symptoms of SAD our thoughts are likely to be more negative, reinforcing our mood and sabotaging our attempts to take positive action. Psychological research has identified several unhelpful thinking styles commonly experienced when our mood is lower:
All or nothing thinking – Sometimes called black and white thinking e.g. “either I do it all right, or I have failed”
Over-generalising – Seeing a pattern based upon a single event, or being overly broad in the conclusions we draw e.g. “Everything is rubbish; I never get things right”
Mental filter – Only paying attention to certain types of evidence. Noticing our failures but not seeing our successes.
Disqualifying the positive – Discounting the good things that have happened or that you have done for some reason or another, e.g. “That doesn’t count”
Jumping to conclusions – There are two key types of jumping to conclusions:
- Mind reading (imagining we know what others are thinking)
- Fortune telling (predicting the future)
Catastrophising – Blowing things out of proportion (catastrophising)
Emotional reasoning – Assuming, that if we feel a certain way what we think must be true e.g. “I feel embarrassed so I must be an idiot”
Should-ing and Must-ing – Using critical words like ‘should’, ‘must’, or ‘ought’ can make us feel guilty, or like we have already failed If we apply ‘shoulds’ to other people the result is often frustration
Labelling – Assigning labels to ourselves or other people e.g. “I’m a loser, I’m completely useless, They’re such an idiot”
Personalisation – Blaming yourself or taking responsibility for something that wasn’t completely your fault. Conversely, blaming other people for something that was your fault.
Keeping a thought record can enable us to begin to recognise our own unhelpful thinking styles so we can challenge them with something more helpful, such as, “Ah, I think I’m emotionally reasoning – now I know that I feel tired and listless right now, and part of me just wants to curl up under the duvet, but I know that if I do that I’ll feel worse and things will only feel harder. If I get up and go for a brisk walk I might feel a bit better and then I might be able to get going with the rest of the day…”
If things feel too difficult to manage alone, talking to a trained therapist can be very beneficial.