As the temperature and light levels drop at this time of year, so each day rapidly shortens. Falling leaves unequivocally announce autumn and the inescapable ‘decline’ towards winter. It’s difficult not to be aware of the lack of vitality in nature and the echoes of endings: the end of summer; the end of long days; the end of warmth; and, deeper down, the counterpart that yet another year has slipped through our fingers – and, for many people, an uncomfortable connection with death.
Like the change in leaf colour, the calls to my therapy practice also alter during this season. Certain types of depression become prominent, and relationships seem to suffer even more as couples and families are thrown into closer proximity by the shorter, colder days … not to mention Christmas already becoming a pressure point for many. I note, too, that the two times when existential issues flurry most prominently into my practice are spring (the counterpart to birth) and once autumn beckons (reminding people of the ‘what should have been’ moments of the year).
But it isn’t just a myth that lower light levels bring about a time of increased depression for many millions of people. The ‘winter blues’ (which start in the autumn) has scientific evidence in its support. Seasonal Affective Disorder (often just referred to by its highly appropriate acronym SAD) is thought to occur because of the way our bodies respond to the lack of light available in the short daylight months. Theory around SAD suggests that the light entering our eyes causes changes in hormone production levels in our body, lowering the ‘feel-good’ hormone serotonin and also interfering with our melatonin levels – a hormone that helps determine sleep patterns. And, overall, the low light levels disrupt our circadian cycle – our naturally recurring body rhythms during a 24-hour period. For many people, these changes add up to considerable lethargy and the experience of other connected symptoms of depression.
So far, I’m not really offering much positive about the final part of 2016 stretching into 2017 – especially as I mentioned death earlier (the one unavoidable issue we must all come to grapple with at some point). And while August has the fewest deaths in the UK, January looms at the top of the chart, which equates to an unwelcoming month with more anniversaries of people’s passing – another great trigger for dialogue in the consulting room.
While we can’t avoid death, we can take a leaf (or perhaps an acorn) from a squirrel’s book and prepare for those light-depleted winter days by taking action and planning a few things before the dark takes hold.
For example, think about good, clean eating rather than succumbing to sugary carbohydrates that will add to a feeling of sluggishness, not to mention a few pounds.
Get active before your New Year’s resolutions. According to Dr Andrew McCulloch, the former chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, ‘There’s convincing evidence that 30 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week is effective against depression and anecdotal evidence that lighter exercise will have a beneficial effect, too.’* Of course, it follows that exercising outdoors (e.g. brisk walking**) during this period will be useful in helping to expose you to higher levels of light than you would get indoors.
When it comes to that increase in relationship stress, it might be time to book in a relationship MOT session with a therapist, where you can talk in a safe, comfortable, non-confrontational space about any issues troubling you in your life together.
Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-place – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.