Life and Style Writer, Madeleine Bourne sheds some light on Seasonal Affective Disorder and shares her tips on how to stay positive in the winter months

English & Creative Writing student | Writer for Redbrick & The Tab | Host of The Request Show at BurnFM | Absolutely awful at writing remotely interesting bios
Images by Flickr - Evil Erin

In a society that’s plagued by self-help lifestyle journalism, self-help guides, self-help apps, even self-help books written by your favourite self-help YouTubers, it seems we’ve hit a mental health epidemic. Whilst many statistics point this to be somewhat true, with the mental health charity, Mind, stating that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental illness each year, it can also be argued that we’ve entered another stage as a society. And that stage is one cornerstoned by self-help, and particularly self-diagnosis.

Sitting down to write this article, one thing I did not want to do with these words is allow you to self-diagnose yourself, or to claim that you, the reader, is definitely experiencing what the title of this piece suggests: Seasonal Affective Disorder. Self-help literature is by no means a way to prove your susceptibility to a mental health issue: only a doctor can do that. So as a disclaimer before we begin: if you really are struggling during these cold, winter months, more so than you believe the Average Joe to be, make sure you consult with a GP. And one other thing? All the tips and tricks in this article may not work for you; each individual is not cured with a Redbrick article. But when I sat down to write this, all I wanted to do was shed light on a real mental health issue that we throw around a little too generally – sometimes to explain every bad mood from November onwards – I wanted to offer some tips for those of us that might be a little down in the dumps during the winter months, and I wanted to push those who are really really struggling in the helpful direction of some proper support: your GP.

Self-help is not a ‘one size fits all’. And not everyone experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder in the same way, or to the same degree

Self-help is not a ‘one size fits all’. And not everyone experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder in the same way, or to the same degree.

So: onto the article. As it seems like a good place to begin, what is Seasonal Affective Disorder? The mental health charity Mind defines Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as ‘a form of depression that people experience at a particular time of year or during a particular season. It is a recognised mental health disorder’. According to research published in 2014, 29 per cent of Britons are affected by SAD in winter. However, the organisation is also quick to explain that it is perfectly normal for the rest of us to experiences changes in mood as the seasons develop: we may feel lighter and happier in summer as the sun is shining, giving us a boost of Vitamin D, and we may feel grumpier and sleepier in winter when the days feel longer due to a lack of daylight. However, when normal mood fluctuations become SAD is when the depressive symptoms start to have a significant impact on your daily life.

It’s important to remember that SAD should only be diagnosed by a professional, and when the patient has been experiencing the same symptoms in the same season consistently for a couple of years.

Symptoms of SAD could be, but are not limited to, things such as: lack of energy completing everyday tasks, difficulty concentrating and/or sleeping, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks

Symptoms of SAD could be, but are not limited to, things such as: lack of energy completing everyday tasks, difficulty concentrating and/or sleeping, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. If you’re in doubt, check Mind’s page on Seasonal Affective Disorder.

And this is not to belittle anyone who is experiencing just a couple of these symptoms, and are unsure they’re ‘bad enough’ to be seen by a professional. If you’re ever in doubt about your mental health, go and talk to a doctor. Nothing is too ‘embarrassing’, ‘silly’, or ‘small’ to get checked out.

With this in mind, here leads us to the self-help part of the article. But sometimes self-help steps do point us in the right direction to feeling better. It’s just worth keeping in mind that not all of these will work for everyone, it’s not a ‘take steps 1-5 and you’ll be cured’ and it’s especially not the complete solution to a serious mental health illness. But if you’re just looking for a pick-me-up in these colder, darker months, here are some things you can try out to ease a low mood:

Embrace the season

This may sound ridiculous, as to many people crunchy leaves and Christmas festivities are what makes Winter their favourite season, but a lot of us really just aren’t feeling it at this time of year. Christmas may feel like a forced effort to be happy, and a crisp walk in minus temperatures might be the last thing on our lists. But finding things you can enjoy in these seasons, and throwing yourself into them, is really something to lift that mood. However small, whether it be the joy of being able to sit cooped up under the covers with a good book without sweating, or counting the conkers that lay on the floor near your feet, there are little joys to be found even in the least tolerable of seasons. Latch onto these things, keep them close and you’ll find yourself enjoying winter that little bit more.

Have a go at light therapy

Doctors often suggest to SAD sufferers to purchase a light box: it can be kept in your bedroom, and it simulates sunlight exposure. Specialists such as Lumie and Sad Lightbox are companies whose lightboxes will emit at least 10,000 lux; a sure-fire way to boost your mood.

Exercise, exercise, exercise

It can be tempting after a long day in the library, as the evening draws in at 4pm, to not then head out to the gym in the dusk. However, it’s proven that exercise at any time of year boosts our levels of happiness, and even just a brisk walk in the early morn, or some exercises in your room at night might just help. You don’t have to go crazy on the exercise, just make sure you’re keeping it up in winter, too.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet

It can also be tempting in the colder months to comfort eat to your heart’s content because a beach body isn’t a thing, and Christmas is the perfect excuse to whip out a share bag, for yourself. And treating yourself is compulsory, but also making sure your diet stays balanced is necessary. Comfort eating to the max may feel great in the moment, but after an overeating session, your body and your mind might not be feeling brilliant. Balance is key.

Seek out natural sunlight

Whether that’s sitting by a window in the library, or talking a brisk 20 minute walk during your lunch break, seeking out that natural light before it hits the 4pm dusk will be the perfect way to remind yourself that winter can be beautiful, too.

Remember that this feeling will pass

Easier said than done, but everything is temporary. Seasons will change and before you know it (after the never-ending slog that is January) you’ll start to see the beginnings of spring. Look forward to a new beginning, a new start and a new season: it’ll soon come around.

Write down your feelings

Writing can be a release, so whether this is popping down a couple of things you’re grateful for each day in your planner, to writing lengthy journal entries when you’ve had a bad day, if you send out your feelings onto the page, you might feel lighter for it afterwards.

And remember, if you really are struggling, the GP is the person to visit

With treatments ranging from antidepressants, to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and counselling, there are various ways that a professional can help treat SAD. If you’re concerned you might have the illness, just pay your GP a visit. There’s support out there at your fingertips: don’t be afraid to reach for it.