While the phrase, ‘winter is coming’ may warm the hearts of Game of Thrones fans everywhere, it can also inspire dread in those experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Winter. Blues. Are. A. Thing.

If you’re fine during the warmer months, then suddenly struggling at the onset of winter, you may actually have SAD - and not just be feeling ‘sad’.

What is the difference? While increasing our carb and Netflix intake can be par for the course once the mercury drops, SAD produces more serious symptoms. These can include feeling hopeless, a lack of energy, changes in sleeping & eating patterns, a decreased sex drive and a loss of interest in the things you’d normally enjoy. SAD can also exacerbate pre-existing mental illness.  

This is not simply a case of ‘I’m not a winter person’. SAD is a real condition that is both easily diagnosed and treated. 

Although an official cause is yet to be established, many researchers believe that the body’s response to a lack of sunlight is the likely culprit.

Vitamin D (AKA the ‘sunshine vitamin’), is known to ward off depression. In the cooler months, our bodies absorb less Vitamin D through the sun, so you may need to speak with your GP about having your levels checked.

Lack of sunlight can also deplete serotonin and melatonin production. Serotonin affects our mood & appetite and melatonin affects our sleep & circadian rhythm (‘body clock’).

Serotonin production can be enhanced naturally with a good diet rich in tryptophan (found in eggs, cheese, pineapple, tofu, salmon, nuts and turkey). However, some patients may need to consult a GP and may be prescribed medication.

A good melatonin supplement that is prescribed by a GP may aid sleep; however, it’s also important to practice good sleep hygiene. This may include no alcohol before bed, eating & going to bed earlier, essential oils (e.g. lavender on your pillow), bedtime ‘rituals’ or routines, using a meditation app and avoiding TV shows, news items, conversations or social media that ‘wind you up’ before bed. It’s also a good idea to ban phones from the bedroom and replace them with an old-school alarm clock (thus avoiding the temptation to check messages and emails 24/7).

Apart from these physiological changes during winter, we can also experience barriers to our emotional wellbeing. The sun rises later and sets earlier, meaning it’s often dark when we leave for work and even darker before we get home. This can feel like we’ve ‘lost’ our entire day and that all we do is go to work and come home.

While working, it’s important to take regular breaks and get outside as often as you can, even if it’s only for 10 minutes. Embrace your evenings and find things to look forward to when the sun has gone down. This could be a trivia night with friends at the pub, meditation in front of the heater, a woodfire pizza night with the kids or a cosy evening with your partner.

Remember that each season has its value. Try to plan ahead for ‘winter events’ you can look forward to, that you wouldn’t be able to do in summer. This could include a ski trip, hot chocolate by the fire, making S’mores, shopping for winter boots or ice skating.

Exercise is an important step in combating depression, as it releases endorphins (brain chemicals), which triggers a positive response in our neuromuscular system, reducing pain and helping us to relax.

However, exercise can also be one of the harder steps to follow in winter, as it’s difficult to stay motivated and stick to a routine when it’s cold and dark.

Plan ahead. Join a sports team or book a personal trainer instead of exercising solo – it’s harder to ‘bail’ when other people are relying on you. Take your gym clothes to work and train on the way home – it’s harder to welch on your agreement with yourself when you don’t have access to your couch.

Winter may impose some logistical barriers to best laid exercise plans. It may be too dark for a morning surf (sharks) and too unsafe for an evening jog (robbers). The rain may keep thwarting your netball training. 

Be flexible. Move your routine to your lunch break. Change up your activity and join a running club (there’s safety in numbers), join a team at an indoor sports centre (no rain) or head to a heated pool (no sharks).

Try not to be too hard on yourself when you miss a day. Listen to your body, check in with your feelings and remember you can always start afresh tomorrow. Blaming yourself and feeling guilty or like a failure can actually increase behaviours of procrastination and set you back further, so give yourself a little break.  

If you’re struggling, get on the front foot now and talk to someone. In an emergency, call 000. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 any time for free.

Artius Health offers appointments with qualified, experienced Psychologists via Telehealth, no matter where you are in Australia. Face-to-face appointments are also available at our clinics throughout QLD.

If you have a Health Care Card or Pension Card, we are here to help. We bulk-bill these appointments. Ask your GP for a referral or Mental Health Care Plan to access the Medicare rebate.

Phone 1300 764 003 or email health@artius.com.au to book your appointment today. Visit www.artius.com.au for more information.

Remember, like all seasons, this too shall pass. Now, spring is coming.