The winter blues

I can never decide which I love more – spring or autumn. The return of colour to the landscape in May is truly uplifting; but the kaleidoscopic hues of October can be breathtaking.

How heading outdoors can help beat the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

Autumn colours

Autumn colours in the Lake District National Park

I can never decide which I love more – spring or autumn. The gradual return of colour to the winter-bleached landscape in April and May is truly uplifting; but then the kaleidoscopic hues of September and October can be breathtaking. I love that moment in spring when you first feel the reviving warmth of the sun on your skin; but then I also love to wrap up against the bite of autumn’s invigorating frosts. And what about that longed-for weekend in March when the clocks go forward? Ah, there’s the rub; the only bonus to them going back in October is the extra hour in bed. So, it looks like spring wins 3–2.

If it weren’t for the lack of daylight, I’d probably love autumn – and even winter – as much as spring and summer. I get a sense of foreboding as early as September some years; it’s almost as if I can feel the oppressive mid-winter darkness lurking out there, ready to reduce me to a yawning, sluggish, duvet-loving sloth.

Maybe it’s a primeval thing, based on mankind’s millennia-old fear of the dark. Maybe there’s something genetic going on – my mum always used to start talking, in glass-half-empty fashion, of the nights “drawing in” in late June, as soon as we were past the solstice. Or maybe it’s simply knowing that the time I can spend outdoors is getting less with each passing day.

Summer hills

Those long summer days on the hills are already becoming a distant memory

Studies suggest as many as one in six people in the UK experience some symptoms of the ‘winter blues’ or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). One theory is that daylight stimulates the area of the brain that controls mood and energy levels, and lack of light prevents this from working properly. The hormones serotonin and melatonin are thought to play a key role, but scientists still don’t fully understand this. Other theories relate to evolution and genetics. If you want to know more about the science, there’s an interesting feature on the Guardian’s website.

With as many as one in 15 people suffering the full-blown depression associated with SAD, many treatments have sprung up in recent years. Some doctors claim high doses of vitamin D help; special lamps that mimic daylight are commonly available; and there are even ‘alarm clocks’ that simulate the light conditions of dawn as you wake in the morning. The mental health charity Mind has a lot of useful tips on how to combat the worst effects of SAD.

Winter walking

Winter walking can be a mood enhancer

But one of the cheapest, simplest and most effective remedies – and you already know where I’m going with this, don’t you? – is spending time outdoors. The results of a study co-ordinated by Natural England, and published earlier this year, show that people who visit green spaces at least weekly and feel ‘connected’ to wildlife and landscape, benefit physically and mentally from this interaction with nature.

A lot of us understand the positive effects of the outdoors from personal experience. I know that, if I don’t get out on the hills regularly, I find myself getting irritable and lethargic. A long walk – far from the city, from computer screens, TVs, central heating – quickly sorts that out, lifting my mood and helping me to regain a sense of perspective. It doesn’t have to be a brilliantly sunny day; sometimes the wildest of conditions act as excellent therapy. So, with autumn only just starting, if you already feel darkest December looming, get yourself some good waterproofs and get out there!

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