I hate winter.
Those endless grey days, that desperate lack of sunlight and those painfully long winter nights.
I spend the entire season wishing I had an excuse to crawl back into bed, pull the covers over my head and sleep my way through until the summer.
Yes, you’ve guessed right. I’m among the one in three in the UK who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka SAD.
For many years, my mood would take an instant nosedive the moment the clocks went back.
It was as if someone had flicked a switch inside of me or disconnected my charger. Pulled out the plug. Removed every last drop of energy, motivation and productivity I had, and leaving me utterly useless.
Trying to work as a freelance writer under those conditions was like akin to getting blood from a stone.
But, over time, I learned that my SAD didn’t have to cripple me. I could fight back. I could lessen the impact it was having on my life. And I could make it through the winter in one piece.
Here’s how I do just that.
What is SAD, anyway?
When we refer to SAD, we’re usually talking about a kind of depression that appears when the seasons change. Although most people suffer during the winter, they can also get it during the summer too.
Most people suffer from symptoms such as low mood or depression, irritability, lack of energy, lack of motivation, sugar and carb cravings, sleeping more than usual, loss of interest in normal activities, weight gain, and feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness.
You can probably spot several of my symptoms in that list there.
What causes SAD?
Unfortunately, scientists aren’t 100% sure about what causes SAD, but they believe it’s caused by a lack of sunlight during the winter. This affects the levels of certain hormones in our bodies such as serotonin and melatonin.
Serotonin is often known as a ‘happiness’ hormone, as it helps control your mood, your appetite and your sleep. Melatonin is a hormone which helps regulate your body clock and promotes restful sleep.
There also appears to be a genetic influence too – if depressive illness or SAD runs in your family then it’s highly likely that you will suffer too.
How freelancers can beat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Now we’ve covered the background info, let me tell you what I do to protect myself against the winter blues, so I can stay happy and productive, no matter what the weather is doing outside. You should try them too.
1. Sit in front of a window
Shift your desk closer to the window, consider working in a different room if you need to and open up those curtains to let the light shine in, so you can get as much natural light as possible.
If your home space isn’t so light-friendly, you could also consider working from a cafe or coworking space near you.
You’ll be surprised at the difference this could make – I always make the shift every autumn and it works well for me throughout the winter.
2. Consider investing in a lightbox
Another great way you can boost your happiness hormones, regulate your body clock and start sleeping better is by investing in a lightbox.
These handy things have been created to emit the same wavelength of light as the sun and can work miracles on your SAD. For best results, sit in front of your light box for at least 30 minutes per day in the morning, the earlier the better.
Make sure you buy a lightbox with a strength of at least 10,000 lux, which filters out as much of the UV rays as possible.
3. Give yourself a break
Make sure you set yourself regular breaks throughout the day to help get your blood flowing, stretch out your muscles and give your brain a rest.
As you know, sitting at your desk for hours at a time is no fun at all and will almost certainly lead you towards feeling stressed, anxious, sluggish and oh-so-tempted to lose yourself in the nearest packet of Oreo cookies!
So, get up, get moving and notice how much better you feel. For best results, get outside in the fresh air.
Yeah, I know that exercise is probably the last thing you feel like doing right now (especially if you’re feeling depressed and sluggish). But it’s actually one of the most effective ways you can fight back against the winter blues and stay productive.
It gets your blood flowing and helps you feel more energised, creative and productive. It gives you space away from your desk and the stresses of everyday life. It’s a great way to grab some ‘me’ time and it has the extra bonus of releasing a cocktail of endorphins which will lift your mood (apparently it works just as well as morphine!). What’s not to like?
Bad weather isn’t an excuse, either. Even if it’s far too cold or stormy, or just generally yuck outside and you don’t have a gym membership, you can still get in a workout. Just jump onto YouTube and you’ll find a ton of awesome free workouts.
5. Get outside
A recent study by the University of Essex found that people who enjoyed a 15-20 minute walk in nature at lunchtime noticed a reduction in stress levels, improved their mental health, enjoyed more restful sleep and felt happier.
I definitely agree with their findings.
Whenever I’m feeling particularly stressed or overwhelmed, I throw on my trainers and head outside for a run. This allows me to get away from my desk, get some valuable ‘brain space’, reduce my stress levels and gives me plenty of natural light exposure to boost my serotonin levels, help regulate my mood and let me sleep better at night.
6. Eat well
Even though I eat a pretty healthy diet, winter is the time when I start craving those tasty junk foods like cakes, biscuits, pastries and doughnuts.
But I know that if I succumb to these cravings, I’m going to end up feeling even worse.
Because foods high in processed sugars and simple carbs might taste pretty good at the time but soon lead us into a downward spiral of sugar-cravings, lethargy and low mood.
Instead, we should fill up with plenty of nutrient-dense foods which will still pile on the comfort factor and help us feel more energetic, more focused on our work and healthier as a whole.
Great choices include warming foods like rich hearty stews and soups, delicious baked potatoes, tasty curries and chilis, and homemade pasta dishes. I also like to drink plenty of warm drinks to help me keep the winter chill away and stay hydrated.
7. Grow your social circle
One of the worst parts of winter in the northern hemisphere is the sense of isolation and loneliness that comes as a result of being cooped up inside all winter. Multiply this by ten when you’re a freelancer working from home.
You can overcome this by making your social life one of your priorities and spending as much time as you can with other people.
Schedule a coffee or workout with a friend. Attend that networking group you’ve been putting off for so long. Find a coworking space near you and go and hang out.
Or, if you’re feeling really brave, go find yourself a new hobby that gets you out there socialising and helps you feel good. Why not consider learning a new language, going salsa dancing, joining your local five5-a-side team, going rock climbing, that kind of thing.
You’ll soon be feeling connected and much happier.
8. Open up!
There’s no shame in struggling with your mood and energy levels during the winter so make sure you share how you’re feeling with somebody who you know will listen.
Tell someone. Open up. Let them know how you’re feeling and perhaps they’ll be able to help you through.
No one is going to judge you or think any worse of you for sharing how you’re feeling.
So, to round this up, I still hate winter. I still suffer from SAD.
But I’ve learned over the years that I can survive those winter months and stay productive at work if I get outside, eat well, exercise, hang out with friends and soak up as much natural light as possible.