The last of the leaves are falling from the trees and the recent temperate days, awash with the golden light of autumn, are fading fast. Winter is upon us and the days are becoming shorter and greyer, the nights longer and darker. Soon, colourful days will be a rare thing.
For many people winter can be a depressing time of year. Our bodies miss the light and the cold, grey days can impact negatively on our mental well-being. Suddenly it becomes harder to get out of bed in the mornings. During the day it’s easier to feel tired, grumpy and unmotivated and to crave large amounts of comforting carbs. For me, my MS symptoms also tend to feel worse.
It is important to differentiate between clinical depression and seasonal affective disorder or SAD. The latter is often seen as a light version of depression, but it is actually classified by the DSM-5 as a type of recurring major depression with a seasonal pattern and affects a relatively small part of the population. Subsyndromal SAD however, is much more common and is often referred to as winter depression or winter blues. (Subsyndromal meaning that symptoms aren‘t severe enough for a clinical diagnosis).
Both the clinical and subsyndromal versions of SAD are more common in northern latitudes as the lack of sunlight plays a crucial role in the underproduction of serotonin (the feel-good hormone) and an overproduction in melatonin (the sleep hormone). Long nights and short days and the subsequent lack of vitamin D production also play a role.
Over the years I’ve experienced symptoms of depression in conjunction with my MS. I’ve learnt to take a very serious look at myself to identify whether I have winter depression or clinical depression. When I feel my symptoms lean towards clinical depression I go to my doctor and ask for help. When it feels like I have winter depression I try to help myself.
I have reached out to my community for advice on how to battle the seasonal blues and make the days a bit brighter. Here are their, and my, top tips:
Go outside whenever the sun is shining. Our bodies need vitamin D to feel good. So if the sun is out, step out of your house or your office and go for a walk! The natural light and fresh air will help body and soul and you’ll get the added bonus of physical exercise.
Danish people are the masters of ‘hygge’ a concept that incorporates cosiness, warmth, conviviality and comfort. By using a combination of good design incorporating warm light, loads of candles, fireplaces, thick woollen socks and snuggly blankets and doing cosy, fun things with people you love like cooking, drinking hot chocolate or playing board games you can also be hygge. In spring, you prepare your garden for the long sunny days. In autumn, you prepare your house for the long dark nights.
Some of the people in my community combat the winter blues by trying their hand at something new. You can take a course to learn a new language, join a book club or learn how to repair or restore something. Others knit or crochet for charity projects, or learn carpentry. The options are endless.
One of my favourite things is to light a candle and listen to a guided meditation or music or read a good book. Losing myself in a good TV series also helps to leave the real world behind and it can be useful to dive into a different perspective. I also love looking at photos from our summer holidays and reminiscing about the great adventures my husband and I had. I’ll even make a photo album of our best memories of the year, which makes a great Christmas gift!
In summer I love salads with fish or steak, but in autumn and winter I crave rich, moreish dishes. Hot, thick soups like pumpkin and potato, meaty stews, warm drinks and lots of warming spices like ginger, chilli are a must. Cooking and enjoying a satisfying dish calms and restores me and helps me to feel more positive.
If you are struggling, your doctor can help you in various ways. Supplements, light therapy and counselling are all used to manage winter blues. Your doctor will also help you to identify clinical depression and can intervene if necessary, so please, if your symptoms of low mood persist, make an appointment with your healthcare professional.