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Autumn blahs? Here are 7 tips on how to deal with the gathering gloom

Many people suffer from fatigue caused by winter's quickly encroaching darkness. Yle asked an expert for some tips on how to deal with the change of seasons.

Lenkkeilyä.
Image: Derrick Frilund / Yle

The days here in the north are getting shorter and shorter. Next weekend daylight savings time comes to an end as we slowly, but surely, head towards the darkest months of the year.

So, what can be done if the darkness gets to be too much?

Research Professor Timo Partonen of Finland's National Institute for Health and Welfare THL is a specialist in psychiatric disorders who points out the difference between the fatigue that winter darkness causes and the depression induced by seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of clinical depression. On the other hand, seasonal fatigue caused by darker days is something that most people living in Finland face in the winter.

"The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are changes in sleeping and eating patterns and resulting changes in weight," Professor Partonen explains.

The treatment of first resort for seasonal affective disorder is light therapy five mornings a week. Other treatments include short periods of psychotherapy and antidepressant medications.

Timo Partonen has some advice for anyone seeking relief from the less severe symptoms of seasonal fatigue.

1. Seek the light

The effects of seasonal fatigue, like the depression of seasonal affective disorder, can be treated with light. Light treatments should be regular, at least five mornings a week. According to Professor Partonen, light treatments are effective during the morning hours between 5 AM and 10 AM. On sunny mornings, natural light is a good alternative, but if natural light is not available, one can use a bright light box or a dawn simulator.

Dawn simulators are programmed to come on during one's planned final hour of sleep. Bright light boxes can be used, for example, a half hour after waking.

Partonen advises beginning light therapies a week or two before you think you might start suffering from the darkness. This may prevent symptoms, or if symptoms do appear, they may be milder.

2. Get regular exercise

Exercise is a good way to relieve fatigue, all year round. According to Professor Partonen it doesn't matter if you exercise alone or with others, as long as it is intense enough to raise your pulse and respiration. It is a good idea to find ways to exercise both indoors or outside, and vary routines to keep oneself interested. This is a good way to reset one's internal clock and prevent seasonal symptoms, says Partonen.

He also suggests exercising in the late afternoon or early evening, two or three times a week. Light exercise is advisable on a daily basis.

3. Keep up social contacts

Even if the dark makes you want to withdraw into a shell, it is worthwhile maintaining social contact with friends and cultivating valued relationships.

4. Follow the sun

Many people who suffer from the dark chose to travel to sunnier spots during the winter. Partonen says that people who do this and spend their morning hours in the sun often report feeling well for two or three weeks after returning home.

Auringonottajia hiekkarannalla.
Sunbathers on a beach. Image: Henryk T. Kaiser / AOP
However, the effect does wear off.

5. Eat well

A lack of sunlight can spark a craving for carbohydrates and sweets, so calorie intake starts to surge. Partonen's advice on diet is to hold to your regular timing for meals and don't increase the size of portions. It's not a good idea to skip breakfast or lunch, and extra calories should be avoided, especially during the afternoon and evening.

If the need for a snack does hit during the afternoon or evening, have some vegetables, fruit or berries. Sugar and fats may bring a temporary mood boost, but they quickly add weight, Partonen points out.

6. Structure your time

If you start suffering from insomnia, it's worthwhile taking a look at how you budget your time. Stress and hurry are the enemies of sleep. Try to make sure that you're in a relaxed atmosphere a half hour to an hour before you want to get to sleep. The longer you're in brightly lit surroundings, the longer sleep will be delayed. Partonen suggests putting aside smart phones, computers and other devices that stimulate the brain well before bedtime and to establish a regular evening routine. There are also active relaxation techniques that may help.

7. No naps, unless you wake bright and energetic

Professor Partonen does not suggest naps, except for people who awake bright and full of energy in the mornings. If you regularly get up early and as a result naturally feel tired in the early evening, a short 10-20 minute nap during the day might be necessary. If so, he says, you should schedule your nap immediately after mid-day. For most people, a nap after 3 PM is too late in the day, as it delays sleep in the evening and sets the stage for a cycle of increasingly poor sleep.

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