The clocks have gone back, the leaves are falling, Christmas ads are on TV; this is definitely the descent into winter, even if the mild weather doesn’t always seem to realise it.
I love this time of year, to me it is all cosy evenings with the curtains drawn and the fire lit, Sunday roasts and proper puddings, hats and gloves and the chance to wear my new winter coat.
But for 7% of the population the arrival of the dark days and long nights brings with them a return to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The lack of sunlight and shorter daylight hours are believed to create a chemical imbalance in the hypothalamus, which is particularly marked from December through to February. Sufferers experience many of the symptoms of depression, particularly low mood and a lack of interest, often at levels which seriously impede day to day living. A further 17% suffer from milder symptoms categorized as the “winter blues”.
The onset of SAD usually occurs in young adulthood and as with non-seasonal depression, more women are affected than men. There are undisputed links between sunlight, vitamin D levels and mental health which is why the incidence of SAD in Sweden for example is so much higher at 20%. In the depths of winter many of us go to work and come home again in the gloomy half light, and when you consider than only 10% of us apparently work in natural daylight, that leaves 90% of us, literally, in the dark.
I think also the experience of winter itself can be difficult. The reasons why I like this time of year are all because I am lucky enough to have family and friends to share it with. My winter nights are spent with loved ones and I revel in the fact that dark nights and cold weather keeps my family home and close.
The main winter festivals are about sharing gifts, food and celebrations, those without loved ones may be constantly reminded of what they are missing. When it gets dark and cold we go out less and generally see less of our fellow humans; a chat on the way to the shops, a “hello” to the neighbour over the garden fence, opportunities for this everyday contact are lessened .
It is harder to get out and exercise in the cold and the dark, and at the same time it is tempting is to fill up on comfort food, taken together this causes lethargy and changes in sleeping patterns, already symptoms of depression.
So, it is easy to understand why SAD is believed to the reason behind the number of working days lost to depression during the winter months. But, it is not hopeless, there are treatment options, light therapy, anti-depressants and counselling have all found to be helpful in alleviating symptoms and I would urge sufferers to look into these possibilities.
The biggest source of hope is of course the knowledge that spring will come again, but the wait until then does not have to be as grim as it may seem, help is available.