Winter is coming… and making sure seasonal affective disorder doesn’t come with it
I just had to title this post “winter is coming” because I’m an avid Game of Thrones fan (books and TV series). For those who haven’t heard the saying before, it is the motto of House Stark. It is more often than not used as a warning, reminding them to be ever vigilante.
Often when the nights start drawing in, those who suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, are reminded of what’s to come, that winter is coming, and they too become vigilant, looking out for the signs of the seasons changing and how their body and mind respond. Whilst it might be helpful for the Starks to think this way when they are faced with war (not to mention Wildlings and White Walkers) but it is not a helpful way to approach the change of seasons when you experience SAD, also known as seasonal depression.
The Starks strive to always be prepared for the coming winter. Now that is a good thing! Whilst the weather has started to change and just this morning on my way in to work I noticed that some of the trees are changing colour, we’re still a way off from the clocks going back, the dark mornings, and shorter days. Now is the perfect time to get mentally prepared for the season ahead, for winter, so that you have a better experience of it and help to diminish those symptoms.
In this post I talk about a number of ways that you can mentally prepare for winter and help reduce the symptoms associated with SAD.
The NICE guidelines for depression state that depression in SAD patients should be managed in the same way as non-seasonal depression. This is good news as there are a wide number of evidence-based treatments to help with depression. CBT, light therapy and prescribed medication have all been found to help to induce remission of SAD symptoms over the winter. Whilst no hypnosis research has been undertaken for helping seasonal affective disorder, there has been quite a number of positive studies on its use for depression.
NICE also state that people who typically experience SAD, should not wait until they are showing signs of depression before seeking non-drug treatments. Nipping it in the bud so to speak is a far better approach when it comes to seasonal depression.
Here are 10 ways that you can help with preparing a positive mindset and routine that supports you as we go in to autumn, and then winter:
Focus on how you want things to be. If we assume the worst, that you’ll feel tired, fed up, put on weight, have no motivation, that you won’t be able to get up in the morning, or anything else for that matter, that’s a sure fire way of making you dread the upcoming months. However, if you instead focus on being able to carry on your everyday life, adjusting to the change in light and weather, feeling positive, etc. you go into it with a more positive outlook. I talk about this concept in more detail in the following video: Focusing on how you want things to be
Plan social activities. When it’s dark and the weather is rubbish, we don’t always want to go out. But then we can get bored of the same four walls and start getting a bit of cabin fever. We are social animals (even if you’re not that sociable) and we gain a lot of benefit from interacting with others. It helps to boost serotonin which can help to lift your mood.
Be open to the possibility that this time, it could be different. Just because you had SAD last year (ad the year before even), doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get it this time around. Your thoughts and beliefs might be setting you up to fail. I talk more about self-fulfilling prophecies in this article: Are your thoughts setting you up to fail?
Take up a new hobby. I have hobbies that I only do in the winter as during the summer I like to spend as much time outside as the weather allows. So autumn and winter mean more drawing for me. Do you have any hobbies that you have neglected over the summer that you can pick up again now? Is there something you’ve always wanted to give a go? Doing things we enjoy, especially if they are creative, can help to lift your mood, a way of letting out any nervous tension (depending on the hobby), and give you a sense of achievement.
Spend time outdoors. Especially when it’s sunny to help balance out melatonin and vitamin D levels. Perhaps walk to work instead of catching the bus or get off a stop earlier and walk the rest of the way. Maybe go for a short walk during your lunch break. Or plan a longer walk in the countryside or around the harbour at the weekend.
Work in bright conditions. Windows that let in natural light are preferable but you can also get daylight bulbs which can help light levels. I know this isn’t always possible as work environments and control over them can vary, from one place to the next.
Light therapy. This is typically in the form of a light box. Research has shown a reduction in depression symptoms after just 1 hour of using a lightbox (Reeves et al, 2012) and improvements in fatigue, sleepiness, and health-related quality of life. (Rastad, Ulfberg & Lindberg, 2011)
Exercise outdoors regularly. Exercise is very beneficial when it comes to stress, anxiety and depression, by boosting serotonin and other natural endorphins as well as releasing built up nervous tension. Doing it outside gives you the opportunity of being out in natural light, and even the sunshine, depending on the weather.
Eat a healthy diet. People who experience SAD sometimes start craving carbohydrates as the colder weather comes. Being aware of your eating habits and eating healthily will not only help give you the energy you need but will also help you to manage your weight.
Focus on what you like about the upcoming seasons. We tend to focus on all the things we don’t like about the upcoming seasons but there are bound to be things that you actually like about them too. Autumn happens to be my favourite season. I love the colours on the trees as they change colours. The sound and feelings of the crisp leaves that have fallen to the ground as I walk through them. The atmosphere, activities, sounds and smells of Halloween and bonfire night. And of course it’s also my birthday. Spend some time focusing on what you like about the seasons, maybe even write a list that you can refer back to.
This top tips can help prepare you for winter so that you can deal with whatever it has in store. Taking a holistic approach to dealing with seasonal affective disorder is a good idea, rather than just focusing on one thing, for example the light box. Especially if you have had SAD for a number of seasons. Once we get in to a pattern of things, we start to dread the same thing happening again and start thinking negatively even before we start experiencing any real symptoms. This makes things worse but can also act like a self fulfilling prophecy. Which is where CBT and hypnotherapy come in. I use cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy with my clients focusing on the physical symptoms, emotions, thoughts and behaviours associated with seasonal depression.
Seven years ago, I was asked to go on BBC Radio Bristol to talk to Dr Phil Hammond about how hypnotherapy can help with seasonal affective disorder. You can listen to the interview here on YouTube Shortly after the interview, I wrote the following article which describes more about SAD and how hypnotherapy can help: How hypnotherapy can help seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Reeves, G.M., Nijjar, G.V., Langenberg, P., Johnson, M.A., Khabazghazvini, B., Sleemi, A., Vaswani, D., Lapidus, M., Manalai, P., Tariq, M., Acharya, M., Cabassa, J., Snitker, S. & Postolache, T.T. (2012) Improvement in depression scores after 1 hour of light therapy treatment in patients with seasonal affective disorder. J Nerv Ment Dis. Jan 200(1):51-5.
Rastad, C., Ulfberg, J., & Lindberg, P. (2011) Improvement in Fatigue, Sleepiness, and Health-Related Quality of Life with Bright Light Treatment in Persons with Seasonal Affective Disorder and Subsyndromal SAD. Depress Res Treat.