Columnists / Ella Marshall

‘How I’ve begun coping with feeling SAD in the winter’

By ella marshall, Thursday Jan 25, 2018

For the past five years or so, I’ve really struggled to stay buoyant in the winter. Sometimes it feels like I’m existing as a shell of myself, and from what I can see, this seems to be a pretty common experience.

Humans need sunlight so we struggle in the darker, colder months. A lack of light disturbs our biological clocks and also causes issues with our serotonin levels.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is the medically recognised condition but even without diagnosis, many people experience its symptoms in the winter months:

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  • Feeling sad, grumpy, moody, or anxious
  • Losing interest in our usual activities
  • Eating more and crave carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta
  • Gaining/losing weight
  • Sleeping more but still feeling tired
  • Having trouble concentrating

This current winter has so far been much the same as the past few years for me. I am a much more emotionally volatile version of myself and at points I have felt extremely lonely despite having a pretty strong support network.

Having recently tweeted about my experience of winter, I was asked for some tips on how to get by and I thought that this would be a valuable thing to share.

I haven’t quite beaten winter yet but having been aware of the effect it has on me for a number of years, I have developed a few coping strategies for getting by:

1. My first step to coping with winter was learning that there is a biological reason for how I feel. There isn’t anything that I can do to increase daylight hours so for me now it’s all about coping with how my body and brain is responding to the season. I try to remember that it’s pointless fighting or feeling guilty for being low as it’s totally human, so all I can do is take steps to relieve my stress and anxieties.

2. Self care. This follows on nicely from coping strategy number one. Once you remember that it’s TOTALLY OKAY TO NOT FEEL OKAY, it’s all about making sure you can exist as the MOST OKAY version of yourself at that moment. Self care is by nature very personal. I have often contributed ‘eating avocado in the bath every Sunday’ as my self-care tip when asked in the past. You might think this is obscure but I am consuming some yummy goodness, whilst allowing my muscles to relax. This kept me going during my A Levels – a point where my mental health was under the most strain. Other self care steps that I would recommend trying: meditation, reading, take up a social sport/dance class, keeping a diary… It’s all about taking time to either remove yourself from the stresses of everyday life or to digest and process them.

3. Socialise. Getting out of the house and spending time with loved ones not only reminds you of who you are but what wonderful people you have in your life and that, at your time of need, you will be able to rely on them. If you don’t see friends or family often enough then it becomes easy to convince yourself that you can’t seek support from them when you need it most.

4. I’m still struggling with this one but giving yourself appropriate time to eat a nutritious meal at least three times a day is so important! It’s easy to just give in to carb cravings but ensuring you consume your five a day and drink enough water is even more important in winter. Your body and skin will thank you for it!

5. Give yourself enough time to wake up properly in the morning. It’s easy to press snooze over and over, roll out of bed and turn up to work or school still half asleep and not in the mood to be productive. If you give yourself time to wake up, eat a sufficient breakfast and maybe watch or read the news to stimulate your brain, you will start the day right rather than spending the rest of it trying to claw yourself back from a terrible mood.

6. Take a walk. It’s really easy to stay holed up inside when it’s cold but a brisk walk round the block or through some pretty countryside always leaves me feeling refreshed. Sorry, mum, that it took me a few years for me to believe you on this one.

7. Remember that your thoughts and feelings are not necessarily a true reflection of reality. This is something that I was taught in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy last year and it really clicked for me. How we feel about a situation is not necessarily to be trusted. In winter especially, it’s easy to allow destructive thoughts and negative opinions about ourselves and others consume our thought process. For example, I find it easy to convince myself that people don’t like me or that failing to do certain tasks means I am unlikely to achieve anything in my life. I was taught to write these thoughts down and provide evidence for and against in order to deconstruct them. When I do so, it gives me time to calm down and reassess the situation. The evidence also points to a more accurate interpretation of reality and allows me to climb down from any huge destructive assumptions that I’ve made.

Everybody’s mental health is different so I’m not promising that these strategies will work in the same way that they do for me. However, I sure know that if a few years ago I had been able to understand that other people feel the same way as I do in winter, that it would have comforted me during months of agonising anxious thoughts and low moods.

It’s totally natural to find life more difficult when lacking Vitamin D but there’s a big fat light at the end of the tunnel in the form of THE SUN, which will be back before you know it.

Ella Marshall is currently on a gap year between school and university. She is the founder of the Freedom of Mind festival and a former Member of the UK Youth Parliament for Bristol.

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