When the weather gets dark, so does the mind – how to deal with it?
Many people recognise the depression that seeps into your head as the autumn evenings get darker. The enthusiasm of the early autumn will turn into feelings of incapability. A fitness bug creates a cocoon on the sofa. Your favourite series and your comfort foods seem to be better medicine than dragging yourself to the gym. Unfortunately, embracing this hygge does not make you feel better in the long run. On the contrary: you keep blaming yourself in your head. “How is it possible that I can't get anything done?” “Again, I lost my promising bout of sportiness.” “I'm a lousy loser!” This nagging internal critic will certainly not make you feel better. So, what to do?
Having low energy and feeling worse are normal reactions to changes in the hormonal activity in the body caused by the decrease in the amount of sunlight (Rantala, 2019).
The concentration of, for example, the serotonin transporter associated with regulating pleasure, circadian rhythm and appetite decreases: Nothing really inspires you and you crave cheap carbs. The production of melatonin, “the dark hormone”, increases: you feel sleepy in the morning and tired during the day. Or your sleep schedule gets messed up. (Nyström et al., 2006.)
However, the winter season involves performance pressures and increasingly hard demands. Studies, work and exams are on at the same time as our bodies would like to retire and sleep through the winter.
A modern human’s biology has adapted surprisingly poorly to the 24/7 pulse of the digital society (Korte, 2020). The conflict between one's ability to cope and achieve something and their external requirements increases stress, which in turn contributes to exhaustion and adversely affects mood (Depression. Current care recommendation, 2020). The vicious circle has been set.
Physical activity is medicine (even if you don’t always want it)
Physical activity is undoubtedly one of the best mood enhancers provided by mother nature (Schuch et al., 2018). According to studies, its efficacy is higher than that of antidepressants, even psychotherapy (Physical activity. Current care recommendation, 2016).
On the one hand, the secret lies in pleasure-producing neurochemicals that are released during physical activity, such as endorphins and endocannabinoids, and on the other hand in the stress-reducing effects of physical activity (McConigall, 2021).
Nor should we forget about the psychological effects of physical activity. Stepping over the mental threshold and getting oneself on the move will strengthen the experience of ability and capability, which will make one feel good (Tirch et al., 2016). If a friend is involved, the basic need for a sense of community will be met. (Ryan et al., 2017)
If you already feel anxious about the thought of exercise, the good news is that the worse you feel before exercise, the greater the positive effect on your mood (Rantala, 2019). And if you have let yourself go completely, even light exercise will do. Moderately strenuous physical activity in relation to one's own fitness for around half an hour, around three times a week, is enough to achieve good and long-lasting results (Scuch et al., 2018). You don't have to torture yourself with running or die at the gym. It is enough if your heart rate accelerates slightly and sweat beads on your forehead (Physical activity. Current care recommendation, 2016).
What if you swapped the word exercise with the word movement?
If you feel that physical activity is not your thing, spazzing about sports may feel stupid and your motivation might get buried even deeper. This is also normal when you have little energy left for one reason or another. What if you replaced exercise with the word movement? How would you increase your mobility in your daily life?
"A traditional hunter-gatherer moved to stay alive, in other words, they ‘only’ had everyday exercise, but were still fit as top athletes (Rantala, 2019).”
So, any movement that activates the body and heart in a versatile manner is good enough. Maybe you decide to walk around the block or become allergic to elevators? Also remember to give yourself a mental high five for every extra step!
Or maybe you're that person who gets excited about new things but runs out of enthusiasm quickly? What if you tried different types of exercise without even expecting to commit yourself? Then you wouldn’t have to listen to your conscience nag about unused training cards.
Or are you more of a game person? How about an addictive exercise app that is easy to open every time your hand reaches for your phone? In other words, there are numerous ways of physical activity and different sports, and only your imagination is the limit when you start developing the right feel-good routines for yourself. After exercise, you can record your feelings and self-praise as a motivating message for the next time.
Kick out your seasonal depression
No matter what you try, physical activity is seldom the hardest part. The tricky part is getting up. The development of the human species has probably favoured a type of human that enjoys staying in place and doesn’t waste valuable energy by moving around for no reason (Rantala, 2019). In other words, it's human to freeze in place especially in the dark and cold months when our brains communicate the need to take it slow.
“Since this developmental adaptation no longer serves any health purpose in our current lifestyle, you should consider how to remove obstacles to physical activity and lower the threshold. What would be the smallest possible amount or the easiest way to get started? Right now, if you will.”
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Depressio. 2020. Käypä hoito -suositus. Suomalaisen Lääkäriseuran Duodecimin ja Suomen Psykiatriyhdistys ry:n asettama työryhmä. Helsinki: Suomalainen Lääkäriseura Duodecim. Viitattu 28.10.2022. www.kaypahoito.fi
Korte, M. 2020. The impact of the digital revolution on human brain and behavior: where do we stand? Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 22(2):101-111.
Liikunta. 2016. Käypä hoito -suositus. Suomalaisen Lääkäriseuran Duodecimin ja Käypä hoito-johtoryhmän asettama työryhmä. Helsinki: Suomalainen Lääkäriseura Duodecim. Viitattu 28.10.2022. www.kaypahoito.fi
McConigall K. 2021. The Joy Of Movement. Avery.
Nyström, M., Saarijärvi, S. & Räihä, H. 2006. Kaamosmasennus ja kaamosväsymys. Lääketieteellinen Aikakausikirja Duodecim. 122(2):161-6.
Rantala, M. J. 2019. Masennuksen biologia. Evoluutiopsykologinen näkökulma mielialahäiriöihin. Terra Cognita.
Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. 2017. Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Publishing.
Schuch, F. B., Vancampfort, D., Firth, J., Rosenbaum, S., Ward, P. B., Silva, E. S., Hallgren, M., Ponce De Leon, A., Dunn, A. L. & Deslandes, A. C. 2018. Physical activity and incident depression: A metaanalysis of prospective cohort studies. American Journal of Psychiatry. 175 (7), 631–648.
Tirch, D., Schoendorff, D. & Silberstein, L. R. 2016. Myötätunnon tiede. Englanninkielinen alkuteos The ACT practitioner's guide to the science of compassion. Suomentanut Teija Hartikainen. Viisas Elämä.