Do you feel low during the dark winter months? Five tips for maintaining your work ability when there is less daylight

Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during the dark winter months. Why is it harder to cope with less daylight? Read an occupational psychologist's tips on how to reduce the symptoms of SAD and when you should see a doctor.

The working day starts before sunrise, and by the end of it, the sun has already set. The long, dark winter months leave many people feeling tired and low. Around 1% of Finns suffer from recurrent bouts of depression during the winter months, and as many as a third suffer from milder periods of exhaustion. Why can a reduction in light levels dampen the mood?

– The human brain and nervous system still work in much the same way as in prehistory when we were largely at the mercy of nature. It was then natural that when the sun went down, our level of energy would also drop. However, this does not suit today's society, where you have to be able to work even at dusk," says occupational health psychologist Jesse Eteläaho from Mehiläinen Working Life Services.

According to Eteläaho, the ultimate cause of SAD is still unclear. However, it is known that a reduction in the amount of light affects the brain's melatonin and serotonin metabolism, which regulate sleep and mood.

Like other forms of depression, SAD causes a decline in functional capacity and difficulty in coping with daily tasks. According to Eteläaho, you can recognise SAD by its typical symptoms:

  • Depression is seasonal and always recurs during the polar night.
  • The symptoms intensify in the afternoon. Normally, there is no diurnal variation in depression.
  • Excessive eating, carbohydrate cravings and weight gain. Other types of depression are characterised by a lack of appetite and weight loss.

Eteläaho also points out that the symptoms of SAD usually ease by March at the latest.

If the symptoms do not ease by summer, it is time to talk to your doctor.

Five tips for coping with seasonal affective disorder

You can try to relieve SAD with home remedies, but they are not for everyone. Eteläaho adds that while well-meaning tips on regular sleep patterns or going for a walk may only irritate a depressed person or someone with severe sleep problems, they are often useful for less severe symptoms.

1. Make bright light therapy a habit

Light therapy during the winter months is the most effective treatment for SAD and milder symptoms of seasonal fatigue, as artificial light can alter the brain's melatonin-serotonin metabolism.

– With the right kind of artificial light, the circadian rhythm can be readjusted to meet the demands of modern working life," says Eteläaho.

Bright light therapy is recommended twice a day; early in the morning immediately after waking up and in the afternoon after returning from work to simulate waking up to the sun in the morning and the afternoon sun, which is not normally present in winter. Your doctor will give you more detailed instructions on how to treat SAD with bright light.

2. Pay attention to your sleep rhythm

Seasonal affective disorder is usually associated with excessive sleepiness; you want to sleep all the time, sleep is no longer refreshing, and fatigue persists in the morning even after a good night's sleep. During the polar night, it is worth paying special attention to your sleep rhythm.

– You should keep your sleep to 7-8 hours and fall asleep before midnight, as your sleep rhythm will support you for the next night," says Eteläaho.

3. Exercise gently regardless of the weather

Low-intensity exercise, such as walking, jogging, cycling, going to the gym, or swimming, can help relieve symptoms of SAD.

– People want to compensate for fatigue symptoms by exercising hard, but this does not necessarily help recovery," says Eteläaho.

Eteläaho recommends choosing a sport that is not weather-dependent.

– Many people miss out on exercise in winter because they don't feel like going out. That is a poor excuse not to exercise in Finland!

4. Allow and accept the occasional dip in energy

It's important to remember the soft side of maintaining your work ability during the polar night; it's also good to allow and accept the occasional dip in your energy levels. Eteläaho says that in occupational health, he often meets performance-oriented and efficient people for whom good energy and well-being are a matter of honour. However, it is also important to be able to slow down and lower your standards a little.

– The culture of doing everything you can in your free time to keep going at work is still prevalent. It would be a good idea to gradually get rid of this mentality. Leisure cannot be just about recovery.

The working day should also be such that it offers opportunities for recovery.

– It is important to include breaks, a good lunch, and a short walk outside during the day, if possible, says Eteläaho.

5. Seek early help for depression symptoms

It can be difficult to distinguish between SAD and less severe seasonal fatigue. Intermittent fatigue is normal, but if you find that you can no longer cope with everyday tasks or work, and you feel exceptionally sad for several weeks without a clear reason, it's worth seeing an occupational health professional.

– We also want people to come to us without hesitation to talk about the symptoms of SAD, even if they are doing well at work or in everyday life.

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