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Don't get SAD this season

Don't get SAD this season

It is estimated that Seasonal Affective Disorder, or winter depression, affects about a third of the British population. Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to help yourself if the thought of shorter days and longer nights is making you feel low.

Normal seasonal variations in mood and behaviour

Most of us feel more cheerful, active and healthy when the sun is shining. Conversely, during the winter months, it is normal to feel somewhat muted, sleepy and gloomy. It is normal to eat more and socialise less. It seems reasonable to hypothesise that these seasonal variations in mood and behaviour have evolutionary origins: It would have made sense for our cavemen ancestors to conserve their energies during the winter months, when food was generally more scarce, and stay in their caves for warmth and safety.

These variations occur because of the effects of daylight on our brains. The hypothalamus, a part of the brain than controls sleep, sex drive, temperature, appetite, mood and activity, is very sensitive to the amount of daylight that passes to the retina of our eyes. If there isn't enough light, the vital functions controlled by the hypothalamus slow down. So we are effectively hard-wired to go into a sort of mini-hibernation during the winter months, when there are not only fewer hours of daylight but the light is also less intense than during the summer.

When normal tips into abnormal

So far, so good. The idea of a winter hibernation is not without its appeal, you might think. Unfortunately, the demands of modern living mean that we have to override our ancient instincts to stay in our caves. Electric light, television, long work days and a barrage of information from all sorts of gadgets mean that we never really shut off. The strain of this starts to show when our sluggish hypothalamus is telling us to crawl back into that cosy cave, eat some comfort food, and doze in front of the fire.

Symptoms of SAD

SAD is essentially an exaggerated form of normal winter mood and behavioural fluctuations. It's not clear why some people suffer from it and others don't, but chances are that there's a mixture of constitutional vulnerability – some people seem to need more light than others – and lifestyle factors.

The mental health charity MIND defines SAD as experiencing two or three winters of some of the following symptoms:

  • lack of energy for everyday tasks
  • being more prone to illness – some people with SAD may have a lowered immune system during the winter, and may be more likely to get colds, infections and other illnesses
  • sleep problems
  • depression – feeling sad, low, weepy, guilty, a failure; sometimes hopeless and despairing, sometimes apathetic and feeling nothing
  • mood changes – in some people, bursts of over-activity and cheerfulness (known as hypomania) in spring and autumn
  • anxiety – tenseness and inability to cope with everyday stresses; panic attacks
  • social problems – irritability, and not wanting to see people; abusive behaviour
  • concentration problems
  • overeating – particularly craving carbohydrates and putting on weight (which may increase negative feelings)
  • loss of interest in sex or physical contact
  • alcohol and drug abuse

The good news

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to combat the symptoms of SAD. The first step is recognising that there is a genuine problem that needs attention. Once you have done this, you can try a number of relatively simple lifestyle changes. These include:

  • getting outside whenever you can to make the most of the available daylight
  • sticking to a regular exercise regime
  • eating a healthy and balanced diet
  • learning to manage stress
  • taking a holiday to somewhere bright and sunny

With the exception of the last recommendation, these strategies may seem like hard work when you're feeling sluggish and unmotivated, but they really can help.

If none of these ideas seem to be making much difference, there are further options available. You could:

  • invest in a light box. These are devices that simulate daylight. They are much brighter than standard electric light, and as little as half an hour of exposure a day can make a dramatic difference to symptoms within days. They're widely available to buy or rent, so you can try them out before you purchase one.
  • try a talking therapy. Talking treatments such as psychotherapy, counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help you to cope with symptoms and address other factors that might be making life difficult.
  • talk to your GP about trying antidepressants. The neurochemical imbalance involved in SAD can respond to a type of antidepressant called SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).

SAD is real. It's a reminder that we are not as far removed from our caveman past as we might like to think, and we should respect that reminder and try to adjust our lives accordingly.