As winter approaches, it's common for days to become shorter and colder. By this I mean the sun sets earlier, and there are less hours of sunlight daily. Here in London, the sun rises at 8am and starts to set at 3:30pm, and the time the sun sets seemingly gets earlier everyday.
I've always had a tough time navigating the short winter days (I consider myself a sun baby, and being in the sun makes me feel better mentally), and this makes sense. Without enough sun exposure, your serotonin levels can dip. Research has repeatedly found more mental health distress in people during seasons with little sun exposure, and it's not just people "being dramatic." Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time each year. Although it can occur in spring or summer, it typically begins in late fall and lasts through the end of winter. Experts believe Seasonal Affective Disorder can be triggered by shorter days and less sunlight exposure. It affects an estimated 10 million Americans, and it is much more common in cold climates.
Being affected by lack of sunlight doesn't need to be of clinical significance/a clinical diagnosis to warrant action. What can you do to help navigate this tough time?
1 .Let yourself feel down/more tired
When I first felt the effects of the lack of sunlight, I tried to rationalize my way out of feeling down. I tried to keep myself busy to distract myself from feeling low, and assumed the feeling would pass with time. A month or so into feeling this way, I've learned how to be okay with not feeling the best.
In general, I consider myself a happy person, and when I found that my mood made me want to socialize less, sleep more, and just feel less "bubbly" overall, I got upset with myself and tried to overcompensate by forcing myself to be extra happy. I thought forcing myself to be happy would make me feel happy. That got exhausting really quickly, and it also felt inauthentic. Now, I'm practicing how to be okay with not being as outwardly happy as I want to be, and allow myself to take whatever time I need to myself.
Negative self-talk and forcing myself to act a certain way only reinforced the belief that I have to act a certain way, be a certain way, and do certain things to be (fill in the blanks, ie. loved, accepted).
2. Consider taking vitamins/be mindful of your nutrition
It’s important to eat a healthy, balanced diet to maintain good mental health. Large population studies have found that people who eat a lot of nutrient-dense foods report less depression and greater levels of happiness and mental well-being. Eating vitamin and mineral rich food through a diverse and balanced diet should always be a priority in maintaining good mental health. Vitamin D is found in a small number of foods, including, oily fish, red meat, liver, egg yolks, and fortified foods – such as some fat spreads and breakfast cereals. For more information on good sources of vitamins B and iron, see the NHS links below.
Some people find that taking vitamin supplements, such as vitamin D helps with energy levels and tiredness. In the UK, Government advice is that everyone should consider taking a daily vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter. Other supplements that might support energy levels and mood include iron, and B vitamins such as folate and B12. However, be mindful that experts don’t know for sure whether taking vitamin D supplements can relieve symptoms of SAD. Don't think of vitamin supplements as a solution to your low mood, but potentially an additive to support your health overall. It’s safe to take supplements in their recommended daily doses, however you should avoid taking them as a substitute for proper medication, a varied diet and active lifestyle.
3. Prioritize authentic connection
I don't know about you, but when I feel connected to the people around me, my mood improves. Having genuine, authentic, and meaningful conversations with the people you love can help improve your mood when the darkness is bringing you down.
Physical exercise has been recognised and promoted as an effective treatment for depression among general populations. However, the actual mechanisms by which exercise can help to alleviate depression remain unknown since studies cannot explore the question of causality. According to Ng and researchers (2007), there are likely both neurological components, such as enhancement of monoamine transmission and endorphin release, as well as psychological factors, such as distraction from negative stimuli and social interaction. All this jargon to say, doing regular physical activity can help with low mood as well as improve your physical health, whether that's going on walks in the morning, jogging through a park, doing some yoga or meditation, or any way of moving that you enjoy.
How we think about the situation we are in impacts how we feel. Sometimes I like to write in a stream-of-consciousness style (writing anything that comes to your mind, basically "word vomit") to let whatever is going on in my mind, out. It helps to also explore what might contribute to your low mood, and how you can take steps to improve your mood. Instead of feeling stuck and helpless, maybe identifying one thing you can do/add to your schedule daily to improve your mood might be a realistic place to start.
Ng F, Dodd S, Berk M. 2007. The effects of physical activity in the acute treatment of bipolar disorder: a pilot study. J Affective Disorders. 101:259–262.
NHS Resources on Vitamin Sources:
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