Don't Get Stuck in the Dark

Here it is again. It’s autumn.

With its spectacular arrays of colour and cool, crisp air, autumn is a welcome delight for many of us.

But for some others, not so much.

Shorter, cooler days, and changing weather conditions can certainly put the dampeners on things, signalling a depressingly long period of doom and gloom, likely to last until spring.  Overlay the hectic lifestyles that are prevalent in today’s society, it might come as no surprise to learn that Seasonal Affective Disorder is on the increase. 

Research by the charity SADA (the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association, sada.org.uk) suggests that come autumn/winter, as many as four million in UK alone experience symptoms such as inexplicable sadness, fatigue and irritability triggered by lack of sunlight.

Like nearly all species, the human body responds to light, but unlike the rest of nature, our exposure to light has dramatically reduced over time.  Only two hundred years ago, 75% of our ancestors would spend the majority of their time in the outdoors, with the average work day starting at dawn and ending at sunset. People led their lives in harmony with the seasons, and even those living in the far northern or southern parts of the globe managed to get the amounts of light that they needed throughout the year to sustain their health.

In the 21st century, with over half the global population now living urban-based lifestyles, we are exposed to far less natural light than our ancestors enjoyed. Today, less than 10% of UK adults work in natural outdoor light.  Consider that workdays are getting longer; more than 1 in 8 of the working population now run regular night shifts; and even for those who clock off by 5 pm, our active, non-working time normally extends well into the night, as opposed to winding down to a welcome period of sleep. Even when it comes to the weekend, when the weather starts to cool, the majority of us choose to spend our leisure time, mainly cooped up indoors.

Our exposure to natural outdoor light affects the regulation of our internal body clock (circadian rhythms) as well as the production of key hormones, melatonin and serotonin.   When the levels we need for healthy functioning are upset, it can spell trouble for our physical and mental well-being, affecting our energy levels, our emotional balance, our mental sharpness, our appetite and our sleep quality. Add in the impact of the fast-paced, hectic lifestyles that we lead nowadays and it’s no wonder that the number of reported cases of SAD is on the increase.

WHERE ARE YOU ON THE SAD SPECTRUM?

Symptoms of SAD are many and varied, often associated with feelings of general depression – or more commonly, the ‘winter blues’.

For example, you might experience,

  • Lethargy, lacking in energy, unable to carry out a normal routine
  • Sleep problems, finding it hard to stay awake during the day, but having disturbed nights
  • Loss of libido, not interested in physical contact
  • Anxiety, inability to cope
  • Social problems, irritability, not wanting to interact with people
  • Depression, feelings of gloom and despondency for no apparent reason
  • Craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, leading to weight gain

(Source: NHS website)

The nature and severity of SAD varies from person to person. For some people it’s just an annual irritation, while for others it can be severe and have a significant impact on their normal functioning in day-to-day life.

IMPORTANT: If your symptoms are severe or you are at all worried about your health, then please see a doctor.

For the rest of you, read on.

NOTICING SIGNS of SAD?  NATURE CAN HELP.

Hopefully if you’ve reached this point, you are someone who recognises these symptoms. But for you, the prospect of popping anti-depressant pills or making a visit to the doctor is a long way off.

Perhaps you’re under par, or tend to get that way, especially at this time of year. Like a lot of us, you may think there's nothing else for it  but simply struggle through and pray for an early spring. But that’s no good if you have a demanding job, lead or influence others and need to stay on top.

If you really want to keep your inner light shining brightly in the autumn/winter months to come, then you need to take conscious steps towards keeping it fed and nourished, so that it can sustain you, and positively impact the world around you.

And to do this, why not take your lead from our ancestors and learn to live in harmony with nature - rather than fight it?

Here are six simple actions you can take.  If you only do one of them on a regular basis, you’ll feel the benefit, I promise.

  1. Take an A.M. Walk.  In the morning, exposure to the sun won’t just give you an energy boost—it can also reset your circadian rhythm. A quick outdoor stroll in the morning, as soon as it’s light, will give you enough sun exposure to signal to your brain that it’s time to start the day. By the time you arrive at the office, you'll be wide awake and alert. If you can’t get outside, then whack on all the lights – it’s certainly better than nothing.

  2. Get Sufficient Sleep. According to various studies, a good proportion of us are sleep deprived, which is bad news for our well-being, especially in the darker months. Most people need between 7 and 9 hours per night. As everybody is unique, it’s a good idea to work out your own needs. Learn from the animal world and tune into nature’s rhythms: if your body wants more sleep time in November than it did in May, then give it the love it deserves!

  3. Move Your Body. Our bodies were designed for movement. Sitting on the couch or at a desk for long hours runs counter to what keeps it healthy and functioning, especially as we age.  When we stop moving, we stop living. In addition to the obvious muscular and cardiovascular benefits of moving, motion and physical activity pump vital fluids within the body. So don’t seize up. Walk, run, dance (anything you like) for at least 20 minutes a day: that’s also just enough to raise your heart beat, trigger your endorphins and boost your mood.

  4. Make Me-time in Nature. We originate from the natural world. It’s our home. We need it as much as it needs us, to flourish and be sustained.  In one study in Mind, 95% of those interviewed said their mood improved after spending time outside, changing from depressed, stressed, and anxious to more calm and balanced. Other studies show that time in nature or scenes of nature are associated with a positive mood, and psychological well-being, meaningfulness, and vitality. Whether you like to exercise, tend to a garden, or visit beautiful, natural places…., leave your hectic life behind and aim to spend a few hours in green (or blue) space at least once a week. Create quality time to breathe in the air, restore your energies, appreciate your surroundings …. and relax.
     
  5. Nourish Your Body. I had to laugh at this trailer for the Thug Kitchen Cookbook  (warning: explicit language) It’s a raw message that resonates: what you put out is a reflection of what you put in. It’s very easy to be lazy when the weather cools, but this is possibly when your body will thank you the most for making a healthier choice about the foods you prepare and eat. Get in tune with seasonal ingredients and recipes. And consider healthy, wholesome meals you can prepare in batches for freezing – they’re ideal for times when life just gets in the way.
     
  6. Be Mindful of Your Mindset. Habitual negative thinking can creep up on us, especially when our energies are low.  Before we know it, we can find ourselves in a downward spiral of doom and gloom, and it's very hard to break free. Next time you catch yourself criticising, complaining, comparing, competing or contending (see Stephen Covey's five emotional cancers), decide to turn the thought around. Choose to see the gifts in a person who irritates you; stop to admire an amazing view; find something to appreciate in a dull, wet day; create a home or office environment that makes you feel good; brighten up somebody's day. If you want to access an energy of lightness that you can both feel and transmit, then create a habit of allowing more positivity to flow through your thoughts, words and actions whenever you can. 

Try any of these ideas once and you will feel better immediately of course.

But the goal here is not so much about a quick fix; it’s about building resilience and maintaining your capacity to stay positive, healthy and FUNCTIONING throughout the approaching winter months. 

So commit now to putting a spring in your autumn step - permanently!