Fed with with the news and weather? Low energy and bored with most things? Easting more chocolate? Yes, it’s February again, the drag-end of winter. Many of us dislike that grey, liver-yellow time between the first frost in December and the first flower burst in spring.
But for a small proportion of us, it takes over our lives. We actively dread the shortening of the days. Anxious eyes note the day length on the clock each evening. Cosy evenings around an open fire don’t do it for us. Winter means darkness, the withdrawal of life’s light, a shutting down of our being. Christmas is a brief respite; a sugar, carbohydrate and alcohol push with family and friends, but it’s soon gone. Valentine’s Day passes by in a distant drift; it’s happening out there, not inside your own world.
If this sounds self-pitying and sentimental, it’s a taste of what really happens. We’re not looking at winter blues, but at a blight on day life for several months of the year. You lose direction, daily tasks become onerous and complicated, even simple regular self-care and time slips out of your grasp. You almost can’t be bothered to make a cup of tea. For some, including me, eyesight deteriorates temporarily. Functioning on two out of four pistons is quite a good analogy.
The renowned Mayo Clinic lists the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder more objectively:
Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
What does this mean as a writer? The first sign is that you lack the natural obsession to pour out words onto the keyboard. Your usually crap typing deteriorates to unbelievably bad levels. You miss things out, you forget how to spell. You forget to note down research sources and you even lose the plot – literally. You forget to answer emails and miss blogpost deadlines. And you fret about it, castigating yourself. That is, when it’s all passing you by as just too much effort.
Any day when you see poor sales adds to the growing black dog feeling as we lurch towards mid-winter. You become locked into your own world of failing energy. Your nearest and dearest see a moody, unsmiling person who has lost her enthusiasm for anything and gained multiple sensitivity antennae. February is worst as you’ve had months of light deterioration. And both my (thankfully short) bouts of clinical depression began in late January.
Why does this happen to otherwise energetic, well-motivated and cheery people? Nobody really knows! It’s probably one of those Stone Age things when sensible people retreated into the cave for winter hibernation.
Three things may play a role:
- Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
- Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood and which may trigger depression.
- Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is considered a subtype of major depression. Not being dramatic, you should take SAD signs and symptoms seriously. As with other types of depression, SAD can get worse and lead to even more serious problems if it’s not treated. These can include social withdrawal, school or work problems, substance abuse or even suicidal thoughts or behaviour.
So what can we do about it?
The first thing is recognising it for what is. It’s not you losing your marbles or at best feeling a bit down on every dull day. Obviously, it’s best to see your doctor about this, but I’ve found these ways of coping.
- Getting outside even on the grottiest winter day. If it’s one of those crisp sunny days, then that’s an enormous bonus. Find somewhere sheltered to sit and lap up the sun.
- Exercise (I know!) But if you can go for a walk as well on that sunny day you can almost feel normal. And even indoor exercise can lift your mood, even temporarily. And all that sweating, breathlessness and protesting muscles give you something different to moan about. More seriously, it can depress your ravenous appetite and keep weight gain down.
- Indoors, work near a window, grab the sunniest room in the house for your writing room.
- Lightbox. Now the good ones are not cheap, but mine works for me, especially if I use it in the first hours of the morning, so I regard it as an investment that has changed my life.
- Attitude and self-discipline (also known as grit). These are the hardest; true uphill work. You have to make your brain take control. If you can set some goals/write a to-do list, establish some kind of structure to your day, even set events in your diary, it helps keep the muddle away.
- Self care; rest, keeping warm, tea, vitamins, yoga, balanced meals at regular times, days out. Have a long, hot bath – great for both warmth and relaxation.
- Don’t nag yourself and don’t listen to any horrible little imagined voices saying words like ‘wimp’, ‘pathetic’, ‘ought’, ‘should’, ‘lazy’ or similar.
- Visualise: I know, it’s a bit touchy-feely, but imagine (or remember) lying somewhere pleasant soaking up so much sun that it seems to get right into your bones. Twenty concentrated minutes of that can stimulate the same responses in your body as the real thing. Apparently. Well, it seems to make me feel a little down.
I’m not a doctor, so please don’t take what I do as any kind of treatment. I’ve just learnt over the years that these things help me.
The long days have returned.
Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, will be published in Spring 2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series