…. you feeling blue? Be assured that you’re not alone. Many people find as the nights draw in and a chill comes back to the air that their mood changes. Autumn is Keats’ season of mists and mellow fruitfulness* and although the colours of the season may be rich and beautiful, as Keats’ poem suggests, this is also the season of ripeness, maturity and the onset of decay. It is the beginning of the decline into winter, the last of the seasons. The shortening days and falling temperatures bring with them a dramatic increase in the incidence of SAD – seasonal affective disorder. SAD is also knows as winter depression or winter blues, however it is in autumn that sufferers usually start to notice symptoms. SAD can be a component of major depressive illness, however most sufferers experience it in a milder form. The symptoms can include low mood and mood swings, anxiety, loss of interest, tiredness and lethargy, the need to sleep more than usual, food cravings (usually carbohydrates), weight gain and loss of libido. These symptoms can begin to appear in autumn and often get progressively worse into winter. Even those of us who do not suffer from SAD may find that in autumn our thoughts and moods change and we may become more reflective, less cheerful or enthusiastic, or more likely to feel anxious or stressed. But what’s the reason? Apart from the physiological effects of less sunlight providing less natural stimulus to the brain and less vitamin D, I believe that there is a significant psychological component to the autumn blues. As the year draws to a close we are more likely to focus on the end of cycles, to become more aware of our own aging, the approaching winter of our lives, old age and mortality. Another factor is that many people do not look forward to the winter months as they find they feel more lonely at this time of year when everyone else seems to be surrounded by friends and family, and some feel their sense of loss more acutely if they have been bereaved. Others simply feel anxious about all the things there are to plan for and do as the year draws to an end; stress levels rise and family arguments are more likely. No wonder we can often feel down at this time of year.
So how can we keep the winter blues at bay? Here are some strategies:
Be mindful: Mindfulness means living with awareness of the moment, being thankful and appreciative of what you have. Take time to notice what positive things are in your life and be grateful for each of them. Focus on what you have and what you would like to bring into your life rather than what you don’t have or what is wrong. It is surprisingly simple and yet effective to incorporate mindfulness into your life and start feeling the benefits straight away. There is lots of information about Mindfulness online, plus books and courses are available – or ask your hypnotherapist.
Hypnotherapy: Hypnotherapy can be a fantastic way to banish the blues. Hypnotherapists can use a variety of techniques to help you to break a negativity cycle, to raise your enthuisasm and joy for living. It is also very helpful for addressing issues such as appetite fluctuations and libido problems. A hypnotherapist can also help you to learn mindfulness and relaxation techniques that you can use at home to calm the mind and maintain a positive mindset.
Other therapies: Reiki, reflexology, aromatherapy and massage can all aid mood and relaxation – though it may be best to opt for a relaxing type of massage rather than one of the more stimulating varieties (just ask your massage therapist).
Relax more: use self-hypnosis and meditation, or other relaxation techniques you may have learned whenever possible to calm the mind. Try to set aside 20 minutes each day for relaxation whenever possible and find a calm, quiet place in which you can ignore the outside world temporarily.
Diet: Adapt your food intake to the changing season. Introduce fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables as they become available, preferably grown locally and organically. Even supermarkets are good at promoting seasonal produce these days and you will always find them readily available in farm shops. At this time of year you should be thinking of pumpkins, swedes, turnips, sweet potatoes, carrots and mushrooms for vegetables and apples, pears and grapes for fruits. Oily fish such as mackerel is an excellent “mood food” as it can help to increase levels of serotonin – the happiness chemical – in the brain. Also think of using many colours when preparing meals – foods in a wide variety of colours will provide you with a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. Also train yourself to eat “mindfully” – enjoy the tastes, textures and aromas and take your time when eating.
Get active: Physical activity is another excellent way to keep your mood levels up. Autumn is a fantastic time to enjoy running or walking in the great outdoors. Make the most of the palette of fall colours by putting on your walking boots or running shoes and getting out there. Sure the mornings and evenings are darker, but generally the weather is dryer now, though you may have to contend with some strong breezes. Picture yourself strolling along a beautiful crisp and clean beach at sundown wrapped up in cosy woollies, hiking through a beech forest with dappled light streaming through patches of reddening leaves, or kicking up the golden leaves carpeting the city streets. Or perhaps you enjoy a muddy game of rugby…. or is a calming yoga class more your style? Any type of physical activity that raises the heart rate and brings on even a light sweat will release endorphins and increase serotonin levels, both of which will help to stave off low moods. If you think that exercise is not for you, read my blog entry How I became an exercise addict, because there was a time when I felt the same way!
Get rid of bad habits: If you suffer from low mood or stress in the autumn, winter or any time of year, it’s a good idea to give up smoking, drinking alcohol or taking illegal substances. All of these activities are proven to be harmful to health, with the exception of some alcohols, such as red wine, taken in moderation. Whilst you might find the idea of giving up your ciggies, or your 2 or 3 nightly beers stressful, the longer term positive effect on your physcial and mental health will pay dividends. Hypnotherapy can help to break habit cycles and is known to be a successful method for many for quitting smoking. It’s also a good idea to cut down on your caffeine intake. Caffeine is a strong chemical and its effect is to produce a short-lived energy boost but that can be followed by a noticeable downward mood swing. So don’t overdo the coffees or teas if you are feeling down.
Spend time with family and friends: Prioritise socialising and spending time with loved ones before the days get too short and the winter holiday season takes hold. It’s a fun time for family get-togethers around bonfires or with Sunday lunches at the pub, maybe by a cosy log fire if you’re lucky! Don’t leave it to the festive season to get together with others, plan to do something social at least once a week throughout autumn and into winter if you can.
Be prepared: One of the most stressful things about this season is that it’s the run up to the end of year festive season. Some people find themselves being overwhelmed by how much they have to do once it gets to late November and December. Why not start early this year and do some simple preparation before you get too busy? For example you could start to add one or two holiday supplies to your weekly shopping list – some things like fruit cakes and puddings have long shelf lives. Or even better – do some home baking! The feeling of pride after making your very first home made plum pudding is beyond compare! Or you could write up your Christmas card list or even your Christmas cards ready to post in good time for a change. Or start to make some home decorations so that you don’t have to rely on what’s left in the shop last minute. If you have children, involve them in the creative stuff, make your preparations fun and you might even enjoy it this year!
Finally, just in case I’ve brought you down you by talking about the autumn and winter blues – it’s worth noting that rates of major depressive illness and suicide are actually at their lowest in winter (they reach their peaks in spring, pretty much worldwide). For the vast majority of people the cold seasons are entirely survivable and can even be enjoyed! Focus on having fun as the nights draw in and you are sure to emerge in the spring feeling fighting fit and full of the joys…..
* John Keats (1795 – 1821) To Autumn: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Autumn
© Copyright Amanda Hart 2011