Dr Ciara Kelly: How to boost your mood and prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Resist the urge to hibernate, it's time to eat better, exercise and embrace the outdoors, writes Dr Ciara Kelly
Ah autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. We are all plugged into the changing seasons, without even realising. Whether we live in town or country, whether we do a job or have any vested interest in our environment - we cannot but be affected by the changing of the calendar.
To everything there is a season - it's true, and all of us feel different in autumn than we do in summer. For many of us the dark evenings drawing in, the crisp chill of the air, the russet leaves underfoot, can mark a change in mood along with a change in wardrobe.
Some people use September as a good time to kick-start a project of their own alongside their child's new school term, with gym memberships, yoga and creative writing classes all popular end-of-year endeavours. But for many of us, autumn doesn't feel like a time when you want to embrace new pursuits. It doesn't feel like a time to venture forth and reinvent yourself. For many of us our mood reflects the season. We feel we are coming to an end of something not the beginning. We feel the dying of the light, the withering foliage, the colder days herald a bleaker time of year. And many of us know that creeping feeling as our mood sinks low along with the watery winter sun. We've felt that way before. We'll feel that way again. This time of year isn't a pleasant interlude where we dust off our hats and boots for the run-up to Christmas.
This time of year heralds low moods, a loss of interest in things you enjoy, irritability, guilt, feelings of worthlessness. You feel stressed, tearful, and anxious. Your instinct is to withdraw - socially and physically. To hibernate because winter is coming - and winter feels long. It all sounds much like depression, except you know it'll improve come spring. You hate this time of year because you know that it means the arrival of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD - those depression-like feelings coupled with lethargy, a desire to sleep more, poor concentration and often increased appetite - is relatively common. The desire to sleep and the cravings for carbohydrates can make you feel like you literally are going into hibernation.
And although the Scandinavian fashion for Hygge - tucking yourself up on the couch with cocoa and fluffy socks - sounds lovely in theory, for those of us suffering from SAD, giving into those urges to see no one and just eat and sleep can only compound the depressive-like nature of the condition.
So what should you do if you are feeling the effects of SAD coming into the winter?
* Like any mood issue, talking therapies, like cognitive behavioural therapy, can help and if it's very severe or debilitating, some people may even need medication - but I always like to talk about what you can do yourself to improve things when you're feeling that way.
* Light therapy is popular for SAD and many people buy light boxes specifically designed to treat it. Some of them swear by the benefits of sitting in front of these lamps for up to an hour each morning. But there is mixed evidence as to whether they have any proven real benefit.
* However, increasing your exposure to natural sunlight is thought to help. Get out for walks in the open air as much as possible, especially if it's a bright day. Walk in the mornings or at lunchtime to maximise the sunshine. But even if you are indoors try to increase your intake of sunlight. Move desks or seats to be beside windows. Take down blinds or shades that block light. And try and make the inside of your home or workplace as bright and airy as you can.
* Exercise is a key pillar in the treatment of all kinds of mood disorders, and SAD is no different. Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day to feel the benefits. And the best kind - you've guessed it - is exercise you can do outdoors during daylight hours. That gives you the wonderful triumvirate of sunlight, exercise and greenery - a powerful trio for boosting your mood.
* Eat a healthy, balanced diet. You may be craving carbs to build up your winter fat layer, but lots of green leafy vegetables and plant-based foods will probably actually make you feel better. Putting on weight from over-eating rarely makes us feel anything other than down, so a lighter, more balanced diet that includes lean protein and healthy fats, as well as your veg and unrefined brown carbs in moderation, is a better idea than all the hearty, stodgy meals you're hankering after.
* The last big thing that can improve SAD is managing stress. When we are consumed by our desire to hibernate we tend to disengage and avoid lots of things we really should be dealing with, like credit card bills or organising form-filling or fee-paying. That, in turn, makes us feel hugely stressed as we fail to get on top of our lives. Don't opt out of what seems daunting. Instead make a list and tick jobs off as you go. Stress breeds stress and falling behind on important tasks can leave you paralysed in a cycle of escalating fear and inaction. Manage your stress by forcing yourself to be a bit better organised and disciplined - even though that's probably the complete opposite of what you want to do.
SAD is common and ranges from mild to severe. If you are a sufferer try and head it off at the pass. Sometimes we can choose to be happy.