These are dark days. Or darker at least. The nights are drawing in, the cold mornings are harder to handle and, aside from those treasured days of crisp autumn sunshine, it’s looking a lot greyer overhead.
All of which can impact our mindset – and, at the more serious end of things, our mental health.
Around 6% of the UK population suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder; essentially a form of depression triggered by the seasonal changes, namely the increasing lack of light, in autumn/winter. A further 10-15% suffer from a milder form and can experience those well-known symptoms of low-mood, lack of focus and lethargy. None of which suggest great things for our workplace performance.
In fact, research shows that the deeper into winter we go, the less productive we are, until we finally reach our lowest points in January and February And – apologies to keep hitting you with the bad news blues – it seems to affect women a little more. (As with all things there’s an evolutionary explanation; apparently we weren’t meant to work during the winter months but stay nice and warm in our caves, conserving our energy for when we got knocked up by the neanderthal next door.)
But don't despair. We’ve found a selection of bona fide ways to fortify your mind, ward off the winter blues and stay on your A-game all the way through to spring.
Let's start with the science: your seasonal drop in mood is generally caused by a drop in the body’s levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is responsible for many things, including regulating your mood and emotions. Low levels are linked to depression. And low levels can be caused by lack of exposure to light.
So get as much of it when you can, while you can. If possible, position your work station next to a window. Take a walk outside at midday when the sun is strongest (direct exposure to outside light is more effective.) And consider buying yourself a lightbox – a panel that mimics outdoor light – to sit on your desk. A study from the University of Maryland found that just 20 minutes of light from a lightbox is enough to raise baseline depressions for those suffering from SAD.
Chronic oversleeping is a symptom of SAD and, let’s face it, more likely for all of us when we’re waking up in the dark. And yet more sleep does not mean better sleep – in fact, SAD sufferers often don’t sleep as deeply or as well as their seasonally adjusted counterparts.
First thing’s first – get up. Laying in, struggling to neither sleep nor wake up, won’t do you any good. Investing in a dawn simulation light – like this one – might help matters. There’s a myriad of research into the fact that these light simulating alarm clocks (which gradually lighten the closer you get to your desired waking time) can not only help you sleep better but also wake up less groggy and perform better at tasks throughout the day.
If you’re not ready to invest in a dawn simulator then at least consider changing the tone on your alarm clock to something more melodic. A study by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology found that swapping the ‘beep-beep’ of a traditional alarm to a gentle melody helped people to wake up faster and feel more alert.
Always slightly annoyed by the perky co-workers who fit in a lunchtime run? Well, it’s time to join their tribe. You probably already know that exercise can boost your serotonin levels and, therefore, your overall mood. But a study by Bates College Health Center showed that an hour of aerobic exercise outside (even under cloudy skies) had equivalent benefits to more than two hours of light treatment indoors.
And if you can – or perhaps on a weekend, when you have more time – try and head somewhere in nature you haven’t explored before; perhaps a stunning coastline or woodland. Nature in itself brings with it a profound array of benefits but recent research published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion has found that experiencing feelings of awe – which can be brought on by seeing something vast or beautiful for the first time – “reduces self-focus, promotes social connection, and fosters prosocial actions by encouraging a ‘small self’.” All of which helps you see the bigger picture, and may even make you feel warmer towards your perennially perky colleagues.
Know what else goes down with the sun? Your body’s level of vitamin D. “Low levels have been linked to depression and a variety of mood disorders,” explains leading registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert. The problem? You can’t really get enough of what you need through diet alone. “It’s now recommended you supplement with 10mcg vitamin D daily from October through to March/April.”
Craving sugary and starchy food is an official symptom of SAD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But filling up on high-sugar food is a shortcut to short-circuiting your energy and focus. Not helpful for powering through an ever growing to-do list.
Whatever you do; don’t start cutting carbs. Our cravings for warming, comforting food are a natural response to the changing seasons. “There’s no need to fear carbs. They hold a special place in nutrition as they provide the largest single source of energy and in fact, they contain the same amount of energy per gram as protein and are lower in saturated fat,” encourages Rhiannon. “They also play a role in the brain’s production of serotonin. Just try to include more of the starchy carbs that are high in fibre, such as wholegrain rice, pasta and bread, potatoes, quinoa, beans and lentils, and eat fewer of the high-sugar varieties.
“Something else to consider is the importance of tryptophan; an amino acid (building blocks of protein) needed to help make serotonin,” adds Rhiannon. “You can find it in bananas, walnuts, turkey, milk, eggs, cheese, brown rice, chicken and fish.”
Seriously struggling with the early winter starts? Consider surrendering to the prospect of a later start – and know that science is on your side. (This doesn’t mean groggily hitting the snooze button, but rather sleeping soundly until your body is ready to wake feeling refreshed.) We know that light receptors in our eyes have a huge influence on our circadian rhythms (essentially our body clock that dictates when we sleep, and so on). This has lead scientists to hypothesise that waking up in the dark could mean we’re missing out on an entire phase of sleep. If we do allow ourselves to sleep a little longer – and start a little later – we may well be more productive when we are at our desks; even if that’s 90 minutes later.
There’s been little research into this as far as the adult working population goes. We know that absenteeism rockets in the winter months. But, reports Wired, a study published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms found that this absenteeism was more tightly tied to photoperiod – the number of hours of daylight – than other factors like weather. When schools have changed their hours to start an hour or so later, they’ve seen absenteeism drop and productivity soar amongst pupils. Maybe we can learn something from the young?
We have launched the Digital Sisterhood to provide women everywhere with the community and support they need at the moment. Be that a safe space to ask questions – and receive honest answers – or somewhere to find a digital event that will offer you the information, or perhaps the encouragement, you need to get you through the coming days and weeks. We’re here for you, so please do head to digital.allbrightcollective.com to claim your 14 day free trial and join our community.